Brighton Rocks

We discover that the south coast city of Brighton is the vanguard of sustainable and innovative design that is inspiring a new breed of eco enterprise

Words by Veronica Simpson

Brighton is a city with a fantastic nonconformist pedigree. A city that embraces Royal misfits (the Prince Regent) and allows them to build crazy Indo-Saracenic palaces there (the Pavilion); it’s also a city whose blood runs a little greener than most. It was here, in 1976, that Anita Roddick set up the first Body Shop, selling potions inspired by nature’s riches, and which had not been tested on animals (radical in its day).

It was the first UK city to put a Green Party MP into the Houses of Parliament (Caroline Lucas, still there), and also the first UK city – in fact, the only UK city so far – to elect a Green City Council. Is there something in the water – or maybe something in that bracingly fresh sea air – that breeds or nurtures people willing to take risks for greater planetary wellbeing?

Some say it’s a size thing. Brighton is a small city (pop. 155,000), whose university probably exerts more influence than most, thanks to a large student-to-civilian ratio (21,000 students), and a long tradition of high-quality and innovative design courses. Certainly, pioneering individuals in Brighton University’s design and architecture departments ran up a huge flag for sustainable design with the completion of the Waste House, in 2014, on the university campus.

Restaurant Silo

A house almost entirely (85 per cent) made from ‘waste’ material drawn from household and construction sites, it is now a ‘living laboratory for ecological architectural design’. At the end of 2015, the Waste House was given the ultimate establishment seal of approval, with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Southeast Sustainability Award.

Duncan Baker-Brown, director of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities’ BBM sustainable design course, was the environmentalist and architect whose evangelical drive made the Waste House happen; it couldn’t have been physically constructed without Cat Fletcher, a self-styled resource goddess, who sourced the necessary waste materials, from denim jean off-cuts (used as insulation) to engineered-wood panels for the structure, to carpet tiles now adorning the house’s exterior.

Restaurant Silo

Fletcher is a founding member of Freegle, a UK-wide organisation formed in 2009 to promote free reuse of waste items. It now has two million members, with Fletcher the organisation’s head of media and leader of Brighton’s Freegle activities.

‘The Brighton chapter is the most active in the country,’ says Fletcher proudly. ‘And I do more here than anywhere else does. For example, we did a really cool event the other day. In a local cafe, we ran a Tech Takeback day.

Something like 40 per cent of unused gadgets sit in people’s cupboards. They are either unsure how to use them or not happy about the security of the data that’s on them, so they are wary of getting rid of them. We told people to bring their stuff down to Presuming Ed’s cafe and then we had two guys there who are data erasing specialists, and they processed about 200 items: we wiped all the data off them and found out if they could be recycled. The cafe was just heaving all day.’

Through her Waste House and Freegle activities, Fletcher seems about as connected as any one individual can be to the communities that can support, facilitate or husband the resources out there. The internet is what makes Freegle possible – a digital village noticeboard for the budget-conscious and the eco-minded.

But physical storage is the big challenge – somewhere to house what others don’t want until she can find the right recipient. As ever, she has a solution up her sleeve: her next Brighton project will be The City Reuse Depot. Fletcher’s presence, both as champion and disseminator of re-useable materials, was instrumental in luring chef Douglas McMaster to set up Silo, a zero-waste cafe and restaurant in Brighton, even though East London was his first port of call in scoping out a potential location. McMaster, who has worked in some of the hottest establishments in the UK and Australia, developed his zero-waste food philosophy during a stint Down Under when he joined forces with Dutch artist and environmental activist Joos Bakker.

McMaster wanted to bring the concept back to the UK, where he’s from. But he was committed to making sure that the zero-waste concept carried through from food to design and construction. And that was no easy task. Says McMaster: ‘Cat was a big help. I don’t think I’d have done it without her. In the early days, lots of people thought it was such a far-out idea, but Cat was very encouraging. And she was offering support left, right and centre.’

She also offered free materials. So, when McMaster found the perfect spot – in a disused 19th-century warehouse in Brighton’s North Laines – the venture started to take shape. Says McMaster: ‘I went through six business plans, four investors and it took a while to get off the ground. Throughout the negotiations, Cat was a good friend and supported me with a lot of decisions. I’m a chef, my knowledge of sustainable design is limited.

But I’m a persistent dude.’ Ultimately, Silo’s interiors were constructed with a large amount of waste from The Waste House. ‘What they didn’t use we used,’ says McMaster, who also cooked the food for the Waste House’s opening. He even found a local graduate making plates out of plastic bags for his tableware.

Brighton’s Real Junk Food project

The city’s location has a strategic value for McMaster, whose system is all about eliminating packaging and ‘middle-men’, going straight to the source. ‘It was definitely easier to do this in Brighton than anywhere else. Being so close to the sea and farms, being able to trade directly was very achievable.’ His methods may be unorthodox but they are economical: having opened in 2014, Silo turned a profit in its first year of trading. McMaster’s arrival has been timely: many top chefs are now espousing zero-waste principles. And about time too: an estimated one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted every year: some 1.3bn tonnes (according to a 2011 report from the UN).

McMaster is in no hurry to roll out a national chain of Silo restaurants – its success depends on relationships and supplier quality and proximity.

One sustainable food concept that is massively replicable, however, is a pop-up restaurant called the Real Junk Food project. Started in 2013 in the UK by former head chef Adam Smith, it is now a global organisation of ‘pay as you feel’ cafes, which creates healthy, nutritious meals for customers who pay what they can afford for meals made from produce on or past its sell-by date from supermarkets, butchers, bakeries, farmers). Brighton, needless to say, was involved in this movement early.

Another such passionate individual is Nick Gant, assistant head of the art, design and media department at the University of Brighton, and leader of research into economic and social engagement. Having inspired countless students to investigate sustainable product design, he has just set up an ‘innovation hub’, called the Place-Maker-Space – another recycled space near the university’s university campus.

It is day one of Gant’s and his colleagues’ occupation of the space. To assist him are two graduate enterprises, selected for the place-making potential of their own design inventions: BlockBuilders, set up by graduates Joseph Palmer and Megan Leckie, which deploys Minecraft software to help people investigate potential environmental change via online replicas of their neighbourhoods; and Exploring Senses, a consultancy run by Hannah Coxeter and David Allistone, which uses a variety of new tech tools, including 3D printing, to nurture enthusiasm for placemaking explorations.

Brighton’s Real Junk Food project

The opportunity to set up this hub has been prompted by the Farrell Review (a yearlong investigation into current architecture education and practice, led by architect Sir Terry Farrell), which called for every city to have an ‘open room’ where issues of planning and development can be explored and elaborated, to encourage stakeholder involvement. But its spirit is informed by and infused with Gant’s Community21 project, a multidisciplinary community of university researchers, built environment practitioners and volunteers, it was launched five years ago to ‘develop lots of tools and strategies for engaging people around planning related activities.’

One of the biggest built-environment dilemmas around, says Gant, is that, amid all the place-making debates ‘there’s this talk of visions but no information on how to develop one.’

Brighton University, in taking a role in fostering closer networks between the local council and the wider population, is a unique asset for Brighton, says Gant, describing the university as Brighton’s ‘R&D capital’. The city council may no longer be Green, but there is still enough openness and curiosity – and enough interest among its population – to support work that improves not just ecological but cultural and social sustainability too.

Concludes Gant: ‘It’s a very fertile environment in which to work.’ Judging by the current harvest of home-grown sustainable design entities, he’s hit the nail on the head.

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