Sainsbury's eco-friendly flagship store on the Greenwich Peninsula pioneers green features and a low-energy heating system. Shame about the car park.
The new, all-eco J Sainsbury superstore in Greenwich looks like a cross between Foster and Partner's Duxford hangar and the Teletubbies headquarters. As you approach the glazed entrance across the huge, unbroken fields of tarmac car parking in front of it, you can quite clearly see that something is afoot.

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.

… but this is how most stores will look

Sainsbury’s Greenwich eco-supermarket, with its pioneering green features and low-energy heating system, could be regarded as the high point of supermarket design in the 20th century. There is no denying that it is a unique building, but sadly it looks likely to remain that way. As a prototype for Sainsbury stores for the next millennium, it is already past its sell-by date, consigned to the mark-down trolley by pressure from planning authorities and commercial competition. Some of the flagship store’s energy-saving features will eventually filter through to the company’s less high-profile projects once their benefits have been fully evaluated. But, says Chris Fenner, director of property at Sainsbury, planning rather than the environment is the big driver in supermarket development. “The government is forcing supermarkets into specific locations and in particular into high-value inner-city sites,” he says. This makes some of the low-energy features at Greenwich no longer relevant or applicable. The pressure on retailers to develop smaller inner-city sites rather than large, edge-of-town developments brings a different set of challenges for companies such as Sainsbury. Not least of these is the need to increase a store’s takings to offset the higher cost of inner-city land. Sainsbury’s solution has been to develop the space above its stores to create, in effect, mini mixed-use developments. One example, to be unveiled in January, is its three-storey building in Tooting High Street, south London. The scheme consists of a 1850 m2 store on the ground floor with premises for South Thames College on the second and third floors. Another London scheme, this time incorporating housing, will start on site in Pimlico soon after Christmas. Here, Sainsbury is building what amounts to almost a mini-village, comprising a 2400 m2 store, eight 93 m2 unit shops, 164 supermarket parking places at basement level, 160 flats (79 for sale, 81 for social housing) and 136 first-floor-level residents’ parking spaces. The successful move by Sainsbury’s main competitor Tesco into small convenience stores has also forced the retailer into similar-sized developments to maintain market share. Sainsbury now talks in terms of four main formats for its stores: local, central, community and supermarket/superstores. The local stores are a new venture. With a sales floor of about 280 m2 – the size of a tennis court – these are being developed as corner shops in towns, cities and villages. Four locals have opened so far, but Sainsbury plans to increase this to about 200 over the next three years. Central stores, another recent development, have a sales area of about 1250 m2 – half a football pitch – and are usually sited in town centres for people working nearby to do “top-up” shopping. Two of these stores are already open and four more are under development; Fenner says “30 are in the pipeline”. For smaller towns, Sainsbury is developing community stores with a sales area of 900-1800 m2 to cater for weekly shoppers. As for the monster of the company fleet – the superstore with a sales area well in excess of 2800 m2 – these are becoming less common as they are only suitable for out-of-town and edge-of-town locations. Alongside its development work, Sainsbury has also started a massive refurbishment programme to “refresh” and rebrand its 430 existing stores. Fenner says this has involved many of the company’s consultants and contractors being moved from new-build projects to refurbishment schemes. However, even without the refresh programme, it is usual to refurbish a store “every five to seven years”, he adds. With so much of Sainsbury’s construction work involving refurbishment and inner-city and mixed-use development, the supermarket giant appears to be following, willingly or otherwise, a green agenda – even if it is slightly different from the one envisaged at the flagship Greenwich store.