Open-access content 2nd April 2009
FCF has taken a small corner of Leicestershire and made it entirely sustainable, from energy to food, even the loos. Cathy Hayward looks at the lessons FMs can learn from a little firm with big ideas
9 April 2009
by Cathy Hayward
Nothing comes in and nothing goes out. It sounds like the solitary confinement wing of a high security prison. But if the first environmentally managed unit (EMU) at First Choice Facilities (FCF) is prisoner to anything, it's to MD James Doran's vision of total sustainability. "The site is not on the grid. It's totally self-sufficient and carbon neutral," explains business unit manager Peter Ball, who heads up the EMU in the rural Leicestershire countryside, just outside Loughborough. The site is completely independent from the national grid and self-sufficient in terms of its power generation, water supply and ecological sanitation. Electricity is delivered via a photovoltaic roof system covering a solar walkway and from wind turbines at nearby West Beacon Farm. The building is heated with a 95 per cent efficient condensing air heater, while solar powered air conditioning and passive ventilation systems keep the building cool during summer. A compostable toilet means the site is not connected to the sewerage system - and supplies compost for the site's vegetable garden.
All of which means that overall energy consumption is approximately 200kWs per sq m a year - only 45 per cent of the 450kWs that a typical office building requires. "This site demonstrates that it's possible to run a profitable business while using the highest standards of environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility," says Ball.
Keep it local
Operationally, the site is in its infancy. Farm buildings were converted to office buildings as part of a two-year project in 1994 but fire, security and electrical testing specialist FCF only moved in last November.
Six people are currently based in the office but this will rise once the sales force has increased business in the area and engineers start being based at the site and using it for storage.
The ethos is not just about environmental responsibility but also about more simplistic living. People who work in the office typically live in that postcode and work on a mixture of national and local accounts. Behind the offices, beech trees have been planted and an area has been fenced off to keep out wildlife.
A mechanical digger is clearing the stony ground which will then be topped up with locally sourced topsoil. Once this is completed, an organic farmer from Waterford, Ireland, and a local Leicestershire gardener, will plant organic vegetables and fruit trees within the grounds, which will be tended to and harvested by the staff for their own table. The plan is also to bring in chickens and keep bees. This is part of the firm's Fit 4 Life programme, which aims to support staff who want to improve their personal wellbeing.
What makes the site even more inspiring is that the landlord, Tony Marmont, a professor at Loughborough University and a pioneer in renewables, uses the facility and his own next-door West Beacon farm, to develop new technology. The air conditioning is constantly being updated and amended by students from Loughborough University. In fact, on the day FM World visited, the air con instruction sheet was a laminated email, indicating just how frequently things change. Various turbines grace the site but are all dwarfed by Marmont's two 25kw turbines across the fields.
"Some customers love the idea of what we're trying to do, particularly if they recognise that they too can adopt this type of technology to save money," explains Ball. For example, a visitor from Caffè Nero was "gobsmacked" to discover that the site's air con costs virtually nothing to run, and is talking about how to adopt this technology.
The Loughborough site aims to be a trailblazer. FCF is setting out to create an EMU in each of the UK's 120 postcodes over the next five years. The main challenge, says Ball, is finding suitable premises, typically disused farm buildings. "Lots of farms are diversifying and have now got business premises on their sites."
The sites need to have about 2,000 sq ft of office space and 1,000 sq ft of storage space for engineers' tools and supplies. At a time when many of FCF's competitors are closing regional offices, the move is an interesting one.
"Our argument is that we can have a lesser impact on the environment by working more locally. It is better for customers if engineers are travelling less distance as they will get there quicker. And they will likely be local people, rather than someone who's travelled 100 miles."
The company so far has two other sites: a head office in Isleworth, west London which, with the help of carbon offsetting, is now carbon neutral and a Cambridge site that is being relocated to a second EMU.
The Loughborough site is just one part of FCF's sustainability ethos. The firm is now working towards the ISO 4001 certification for Environmental Management and, with the Energy Savings Trust, is reviewing its fleet management with the aim of introducing bio-diesel vehicles and minimising the number of carbon miles used in customer visits. As well as providing a source of employment in rural areas, each EMU aims to invest 1 per cent of its profits and 1 per cent of staff time, around 21 hours per person a year, in community projects through the FCF Helping Hands outreach programme.
Part of the success of the site is undoubtedly its small size. Ball admits that he takes a bagful of paper, cans and glass recycling home with him when he visits the site; a Malaysian student from the university cleans one day a week while staff clean the rest of the week; and security is more about rabbit-proofing the courtyard and protecting plants from foxes than human intruders (though given the nature of FCF's business, there are burglar alarms).
It's clearly easier to be sustainable when you're a small business compared to a multinational employing thousands. But it's the ethos that is impressive and there are lessons from the site that every FM could take and adapt to their own business. At a time when interest in sustainability is at a new high, it's refreshing to see a simple take on environmental responsibility.
FCF: Fixtures, fittings and features
The covered solar walkway that faces south onto the entrance courtyard, was designed as a passive solar heat collector. Sunshine heats the walls, floor and air within the passageway.
This air is then circulated to each room through underfloor ducts. The air exits each room via overhead outlets back into the solar passageway for re-heating by the sun and re-circulating.
All aspects of the building are highly insulated; in particular the stone walls are lined with plasterboard and 5cm of insulation.
External, adjustable louvres are fitted to the building which reduce the heat entering the building in the summer, but are adjustable to maximise the light in winter.
The solar walkway has been roofed with a photovoltaic system designed by University of Wales College Cardiff. It incorporates 64 photovoltaic panels. Two Sunny-Boy inverters convert the power from DC to AC current allowing it to be used onsite or exported when not required by the offices. This system provides approximately 3,600kW hrs per year.
The building is heated by an air-distribution system that uses an 11.4kW condensing air heater; this system is 95 per cent efficient. Heating in the boardroom is supplied by a wood burner which uses recycled wood pellets.
Passive cooling in summer is achieved by ventilating the buildings between 12.30am and 7am with air which is drawn in from outside and circulated through the building. During the day all the windows and doors are shut to keep the cool air in. During the hot summer of 1995 this simple energy-efficient system provided a typical inside temperature of 21°C compared to an outside temperature of 31°C.
A solar-powered air conditioning system was installed by the Institute of Building Technology at the University of Nottingham in 1998. Solar collecting tubes provide 13kW of heat and 6.5kW of cooling via the ductways. The design is unique as there are no active components and the refrigerant is water.
Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in a 3,000 gallon capacity container at the rear of the building. The water goes through a self-cleaning filter before entering the tank. At this stage it is used for general washing purposes and irrigation for the plants in the solar walkway. It can also be used to put out a fire as the site is not connected to mains water. After passing through a number of carbon filters, a reverse osmosis unit and a UV light, the water then becomes drinkable.
Light pipes have been installed in two of the offices. The pipes brings natural daylight into the rooms via a super-reflective tube that exits through the roof, avoiding the need for electric lighting in darker areas of the building during the day.
The composting toilet works by dehydrating solids to 10 per cent of volume and evaporating liquids. A heater at the base of the toilet maintains the temperature for evaporation as long as the lid remains closed. When the system is full, the inner container is removed by staff and buried in the grounds. The inner container needs to be changed around every three months and the toilet provides a regular supply of high-grade compost for the garden. A waterless urinal has also been fitted.
Broadband is provided by satellite.