The £13m store, which opened in September, is one of a number of retail outlets in a business park on the Greenwich Peninsula. Unlike its neighbours, which are run-of-the-mill, clip-together business park fare, this one broadcasts its green credentials by having solar panels with wind turbines spinning over them to power the lights on the main entrance flagposts.
I suppose it was all part of the fresh, state-of-the-art model sustainable development that was promised on the peninsula along with the Millennium Village. To Sainsbury's credit, a number of objectives have been achieved with the store – objectives that seem to have fallen by the wayside in the promised revolutionary residential project around the dome.
You know immediately that you are dealing with something unusual. The store is igloo-shaped rather than standard business park cuboid, and has a jolly, timber-flanked welcoming forecourt and well-protected glass entrance that opens into an attractive top-lit store. It all makes you feel quite good about yourself as you start your sustainable weekly shop. And you need to be made to feel good, as there is nothing on the moonscape parking court to keep you out of the rain as you head off, pushing a soaking wet trolley, with your Reward card clamped between your teeth.
The effect of the natural daylighting is immediate, heightened by the artificial lighting fixed directly to the top of the shelving. But, apart from the sensation that you are in something slightly more solid than usual, there is not much about the actual shopping experience that shouts green, green, green. Certainly nobody who works in the store seemed to know anything about the conservation aspect of the building, even though there were information packs that illustrated some aspects of the servicing. The splashbacks in the toilets are made from recycled yoghurt cartons, and the shelf-stackers push trolleys that have containers for separately recycled cardboard and plastic waste.
But the shelves are still plastic and the soundtrack in the café is still one of bar codes being swiped, although the direct visual connection with the outside through french doors compensates for this.
Sainsbury claims a 50% reduction in energy used, principally as a result of trapping and recycling the heat generated by the refrigeration units and using this to warm up recycled air.
A sophisticated heat-exchange recovery system uses water in 70 m boreholes. This enables warm air to push up naturally through vents in the floor without recourse to full air-conditioning. The building's igloo shape and concrete walls and floor make it operate like a giant heat sink, allowing the energy to be stored underneath the turf covering that forms the principal landscaping feature.
There is also provision to recirculate the rainwater run-off. This is collected from the roof, via a great gutter all around the building, and from the car park, where holes in the kerb act as a giant overflow, and then discharged into a collection pool, where it is cleaned by reed beds before being recycled as grey water for sanitary and cleaning purposes. Some of this is also used for watering the garden at the back, which is expected to grow into a wildlife haven and location for botany field trips for local schools. An environment thick with butterflies nurtured on the promised greenery will take time to happen, however, and at this stage the biodiversity is not particularly evident. The trees are little more than saplings and the turfed roof looks very much the sum of its jigsaw parts rather than an organic whole. There is still an intimidating amount of tarmac.
The exercise is obviously a worthy one and is to be encouraged. However, as long as this was going to be a prototype, costing about 25% more than the standard, it seems a shame that more has not been done to express the sophisticated mechanical servicing and the equipment that is still necessary, as well as emphasising the dome shape from within.
The delivery access is screened with retaining walls full of loose recycled building materials, and a great deal of trouble has been taken with the roof. But perhaps a great, space-age heat-exchanger or set of brightly coloured vent ducts might have contributed to the otherworldliness of the building.
It will shortly become imperative for all large developers to behave as conscientiously as Sainsbury, but despite the company's photovoltaic illumination system, and the top-up point for charging electric cars (!), there is still a long way to go. What we have to remember is that the properly functioning city or town is the organism most under threat by this kind of car-bound retail mindset. What we want to know is how this holistic sustainable thinking can be made to work in a town.