Property Investor Today was recently invited along to the 150th anniversary celebrations of renowned constructor Sir Robert McAlpine, where we met the man behind ReGen Villages – which is aiming to create sustainable eco-villages for the modern world.
Sir Robert McAlpine, the family-owned building and civil engineering company which has worked on some of the UK’s most iconic buildings and projects, including the original Wembley, the O2 Arena, the Eden Project and the Olympic Stadium, has been marking its 150th anniversary in a number of ways in 2019. One of these being a celebratory event and interactive exhibition at the Battersea Evolution Centre in the heart of Battersea Park.
The event, attended by industry professionals, journalists, schoolchildren, youngsters with an interest in a future career in construction and key figures from Sir Robert McAlpine, included a visual history of the firm, various exhibitors – from AI robots to companies focusing on VR, AR and renewable energy – and a speakers’ corner with a number of talks throughout the day.
There was plenty to keep attendees entertained, too, from LEGO-building and science experiments to drone racing (very difficult, as it turned out), escape rooms, wearable empathy suits, immersive VR and AR, and crane simulators.
Although Sir Robert McAlpine focuses predominantly on major commercial developments and projects, it does have historical and present-day ties to residential property, operating in the rapidly growing Build to Rent and purpose-build student accommodation markets, as well as being responsible for the construction of De Vere Gardens – a development of 97 luxury homes in Kensington. It’s currently also playing a major role in the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, which will lead to new shops, office space, event space, restaurants and homes.
One of the event’s most interesting exhibitors from an investment and residential viewpoint was ReGen Villages, founded by California-based James Ehrlich, entrepreneur in residence at Stanford University. It describes itself as a ‘Tech-Integrated and Regenerative Residential Real Estate Development’ company, with a vision to engineer and facilitate the development of integrated and resilient neighbourhoods that power and feed self-reliant families around the world.
What does ReGen Villages propose?
According to the firm, the next 30 years will see the size of the aspiring class double to four billion, ‘creating enormous demand for integrated neighbourhood designs that incorporate door-step agency with high-yield organic food production that feed diverse nutritional needs’.
These off-grid capable neighbourhoods will be made up of self-sustaining, power positive homes, with renewable energy, waste-to-resource systems and sustainable water management to reduce the burdens on local and national governments and the planet’s natural resources.
In effect, ReGen Villages imagines a world where a community of buildings produce all their own food and energy, tackling wastage and CO2 emissions by turning food waste into fish feed for on-site aquaculture, creating homes which filter rainwater and removing driveways to discourage car ownership.
AI will be used through a village OS (operating system) tech platform to ‘simultaneously manage systems for renewable energy, food production, water supply, and waste’.
ReGen Villages is collaborating with Sir Robert McAlpine on the implementation of the world’s first ‘Regenerative Village Simulator’, while the partnership also encompasses the ongoing development of the ReGen Villages ‘Village OS’ software into the ‘Regenerative Villages Simulator’ that aims to enable landowners, developers and local planning authorities to bring self-reliant neighbourhoods to fruition rapidly around the world.
“The potential for being able to replicate and scale self-reliant communities is an important commitment in engineering and building for the benefit of people and planet,” Ehrlich says. “This urgent climate action work in residential housing development addresses living with critical life-support systems of food, water, energy and circular waste to resources at the neighbourhood scale – building communities that not only thrive individually, but cumulatively change the way we value and protect our planet.”
Grant Findlay, director of business development and work winning at Sir Robert McAlpine, said of the tie-up: “We are always quietly evolving and that’s why we’re so delighted to be collaborating with ReGen Villages. The potential for being able to replicate and scale self-reliant communities is an important commitment in engineering and building for the benefit of people and planet.”
He added: “Our work with ReGen Villages helps us to visualise a better future with sustainable benefits for future generations and to support our clients in their efforts to go beyond building.”
Planning for its first pilot community – in Almere, the Netherlands – was approved in July 2018, with a masterplan for 203 homes in a country famed for its innovative housing projects. The firm also has agreements in place for development projects across northern Europe, including the UK, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, as well as the USA and Asia.
For its first project in Almere – part of the Oosterworld District - it has filed to reserve new land to realise more homes and better affordability. Assuming this new reservation is granted, the firm hopes to break ground at some point in 2020.
Originally, the 50-acre Dutch development was planned for construction in 2017, but it faced strict building regulations which made building on the farmland – just 30 minutes from Amsterdam – very tricky. That all changed in July 2018 when the infrastructure permits were approved, which now makes the construction of the new neighbourhood more likely.
The current farmland is set to be transformed into an area with new canals, ponds, gardens, trees and food forests, as well as vertical farmland in greenhouses to grow food with a low carbon footprint.
The new homes are expected to cost between €200,000 to €850,000, with walking and cycling prioritised and the provision of electric cars on the outskirts of the new neighbourhood, which could then store extra power from the development’s solar panels and other sources of renewable energy.
The plans are a joint venture between ReGen Villages and Dutch holding company B.V.
A niche market or part of something bigger?
While eco-villages are highly niche at present, they may become more widespread as the climate crisis worsens and the demand for sustainable housing solutions grows – and it could be those who embrace them in their early stages that reap the biggest rewards.
In this very publication, we’ve recently covered the ongoing creation of a green neighbourhood in Norway – based on eco-friendly, sustainable construction methods – the growing number of eco-friendly developments in the UK and the topping out of a botanical development in Canary Wharf.
There are also a number of smaller eco-villages and eco-towns across the UK, from Findhorn in Scotland to Lammas in Pembrokeshire and the Wintles in Shropshire.
That said, eco-villages are still very much the exception rather than the norm. BedZed, situated between Mitcham Junction and Hackbridge in South London, was the UK’s first large-scale eco-village when it opened in 2002 – and has proved to be an inspiration for zero-carbon homes worldwide since – but the trend hasn’t really caught on. The Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries have generally embraced innovative housing models with far more enthusiasm.
At the very least, though, sustainability and eco-friendliness are becoming things that now matter a great deal to big developers, housebuilders, architects, designers and constructors – not to mention the UK’s local and national governments.
Homes are now built with these things in mind, and tenants/buyers tend to demand homes which score highly on their green credentials. This is only likely to grow as awareness and coverage of environmental issues becomes greater than ever.
It’s impossible to say for sure what Sir Robert McAlpine, the construction industry or the property market more generally will look like in 150 years, but there is a good chance it will be greener and more sustainable than ever before. Construction methods are also likely to be more automated and AI-led than we can currently fathom, but whether eco-villages will be mainstream in 2169 is less clear-cut.