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City of York - United Kingdom

One in three little pigs save climate


The Three Little Pigs, growing walls in fields, and a heroine leaping from a battlement onto a trampoline : what could all of this possibly have to do with a new waste depot in North Yorkshire ? Actually, when explained by City of York Councillor Christian Vassie, it all becomes rather obvious.

Not all communication is good communication, and making sustainable development issues understandable and approachable can be difficult. Successfully engaging the wider public, means considering not only what to communicate, but how to do it. Content and medium are important factors for success, but so too are tone and the messenger.

When the City of York Council launched its Display Campaign and began labelling its buildings in January 2006, few of them were environmentally sound. But the Campaign provided a huge opportunity for the City to engage the public in a very serious subject : buildings, the way they are used, and the damage this inflicts on the global climate. But far from being the bearers of doom and gloom, Champions within this municipality have used the bright and engaging posters of Display to create interest and demonstrate that the problem is beatable.

One of the buildings labelled is the administrative offices at the Commercial Services Depot – affectionately known by locals as ‘the Dump’ - where the area’s waste is handled. And thanks to Champion Councillor Christian Vassie, it is here that the story really begins…

“This building is an ugly mess of poor construction surrounded by a posse of temporary buildings - too cold in winter and too hot in summer and totally reliant on poor use of fossil fuels. This building is what will be replaced by the ecoDepot, the largest timber framed straw clad building in Europe…”

As Christian blogs about the development of the EcoDepot, he skilfully combines a variety of communication techniques – like knowing your audience and keeping messages personal and fun ; repeating key messages ; making new behaviour sound ‘normal’ ; and using imagery and empathy.

As a result, he draws his audience in to raise awareness and bring about real behavioural change – subjects that lie at the very heart of the Display Campaign.

Building details

Type of building : Administrative
Year of construction : Built in 2006 and officially opened on 7/12/2006
Heating and cooling installed Solar thermal provides hot water for the showers and canteen. Under floor heating is combined with an intelligent climate control system to monitor temperature, humidity and weather forecast, to create a working environment not dependent on air conditioning.
Energy/CO2/Water label (before and after improvements if possible) The old building was rated by Display with straight G’s ; for energy, CO2 and water consumption. But this has all changed :


Aim In his chronicles of the development of the EcoDepot, Christian’s aim is to illustrate the simplicity of sustainable development, and inspire people to take action. He has employed a number of techniques very useful to raising awareness and bringing about behavioural change – action that lies at the very heart of the Display Campaign.
Key points Measures installed - highlights

The new EcoDepot has just been officially opened and contains many exciting new features such as :

- A 52 kW PV array and a 15kW wind turbine producing much of the site’s electricity requirements.

- The whole site uses recycled aggregate and cement to reduce the embodied energy of the materials.

- The vehicle wash will recycle approximately 90% of its water, which comes from rain harvesting.

- Dynamic solar shading is used to reduce summer solar radiation.

- Building construction uses ‘glulam’ timber framing.

- Lighting is controlled by movement sensors.

- The main building’s prefabricated straw clad construction provides insulation levels between 4 and 7 times better than Building Regulations.

Medium and tone – blogging

Display is about social change and engaging the widest possible audience, but individuals like personal messages in bite-size chunks : to this end, blogging offers many options, as virtually ‘anything goes’.

_ For example wall insulation can sound dry and scientific – but this can easily be solved by introducing comedy and colloquial language. When explaining straw insulation in walls – a concept with which few of us are familiar – Christian refers back to traditional building methods and the story of the Three Little Pigs. These are of personal significance to many, and help make straw wall construction sound more familiar :

_ “One of the many exciting features of the ecoDepot is the innovative construction of the walls. Contrary to the folk tale, the little pig who built his house of straw wasn’t a stupid no-hoper ; he was actually way ahead of his time and was simply unfortunate to find himself in the same neighbourhood as a wolf with more puff than the referee blowing the final whistle at the World Cup Final.”

Repetition and ‘Social Proof’

Repetition is often called the ‘mother of all learning’ : and to change behaviour, there is little point convincing people just once. Christian’s blogs (thirteen so far and another coming soon) achieve this by reminding readers not only of the little pig and the measures going in, but also that progress is being made. Through the repeated use of ‘retrieval cues’ like the three little pigs readers instantly recall the exciting elements in the EcoDepot design. Christian also reinforces the message that straw is a familiar building material that has been around for literally ages by connecting it to traditional wattle and daub (below). This provides evidence of straw walls being socially acceptable - the so-called ‘social proof’ that is essential to behavioural change.

_ “I’ve previously scribbled how timber framed straw cladding is simply a modern version of wattle and daub, and how this discovery of straw as the great insulator is in reality a rediscovery of what people were doing hundreds of years ago. But I wouldn’t want you to imagine that our ancestors had all the answers.

_ “Take Stonehenge. What were those guys thinking about ? They may have been interested in making special pleadings to control the weather but all those huge stones hauled seventy miles or more. Presumably hauled by teams of oxen or similar, pumping huge clouds of methane into the atmosphere. Druid training courses didn’t include course work on embodied energy, clearly.”

Maintaining Interest

_ In blog entry seven, just as technical descriptions of scaffolding, timber frames and lime render threaten to lose the reader, Christian skilfully sets up a series of ‘side shows’ to amuse and maintain interest, but without losing sight of the project’s primary focus ; the use of a giant inflated cushion on site to protect builders working at height reminds Christian of an Opera…

“There is an opera, I forget which, where at the end the heroine kills herself by leaping from the battlements. There was a production in the UK where some smart Alec slid a trampoline into place shortly before the grande finale. The diva sings her last poignant lines and leaps to her death… only to reappear several times, to the bewilderment of the grieving audience.”

Getting the right balance

Sometimes the scale of the solution required seems insurmountable and we often refer to problems as being huge, hyperbolic and frightening. However, the solutions often seem insignificant and unequal to the task when they are depicted as simple, small steps. Christian makes the City of York’s solution sound heroic and that they are more than equal to the task. The seemingly endless paperwork needed to get a project off the ground can be off-putting, but :

_ “Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler if the council wasn’t simply sent on a quest to slay a dragon. Kill the beast and everything slots into place…”

Imagery and empathy

Empathy is a powerful motivator for change, but most people don’t empathise with technical jargon or barren building sites…

_ Blog 3 “For several weeks now the EcoDepot has looked like a lot of earth and a few buried pipes. Very exciting to surveyors and moles, no doubt, but pretty dull to the rest of us. Last time I visited, I thought the site looked like an empty cage at the zoo !"

_ “That is set to change soon… As soon as I know the name and the place, I will be out there to shoot some film so that you can see the fields where the EcoDepot’s walls were grown.”

A picture…tells 1000 words

Because ‘seeing is believing’, it is important to make use of pictures, especially in the context of climate change, which is often heavy on language, but light on visuals.

‘The Three Ages of York’ illustrates the rich hues of an evolving civilisation : from a beautiful medieval city ; to a historic, manufacturing centre for the chocolate and railway industries ; and a third, emerging York, as a 21st century beacon tackling Climate Change.

A common sense approach

Scientists are important messengers, as they have authority over complex subjects and can assure people that someone understands the situation. But we need ‘common sense’, likeable intermediaries too, who can convey complex problems as digestible, obvious advice :

_ “Some of the concern [over the site’s new name : EcoDepot] relates to the fact that the site won’t be a perfect example of environmentally sustainable development. So what ? Nothing ever is."

_ “The important thing is that we are changing things, not everything but
as much as we can afford. I am sure there won’t be many residents complaining that, instead of washing the council’s fleet of lorries in drinking water, we will be saving up to £30,000 a year recycling the water. For decades we have even been cleaning the city’s streets in drinking water ! Like most other councils across the country, no doubt.

_ "That is what the ecoDepot project is all about, changing the way we use energy and water.”

Joining the dots – systems thinking

The linkages between our everyday behaviour and general or distant threats (like sea level rises) or benefits (like job creation) are often overlooked, or too complex to explain. Christian’s common-sense approach makes these causal relationships clearer :

“I am going to Easinglwold to see the field where the walls of the EcoDepot were grown. I will also be seeing firsthand the straw panels being assembled I can’t wait…It is Agrifibre’s ambition that using straw in construction will help farmers diversify their operations. Sounds a great idea to me. After all, there are only so many golf courses and bed and breakfasts the countryside can take.”


“If instead of growing crops to burn for energy we make it into bales of straw and use it to insulate buildings, we reduce energy use and therefore CO2 emissions without releasing anything into the atmosphere. Seems better than biofuels to me !”

Other communication activity

In addition to Christian’s blogs, many other promotional and educational activities are underway. For example :

> The EcoDepot project is a set of ‘Key Stage’ 1 and 2 packs for all our primary schools and a 30 minute film for secondary schools.

> An interactive website is being developed, allowing access to the real-time monitoring data about the building’s energy performance.

> There is even going to be a radical reworking of the
folk tale of the Three Little Pigs to ensure that we tackle head on the unconscious baggage we all carry in our heads about building with straw !

> On-site there is an interpretation room, to which students, developers and the public will be able to come to learn about the building and about environmentally sustainable construction in general.

> Articles have been published in various local and specialist press.

Reason for inclusion as Shining Example The environmental impacts avoided through the new EcoDepot will represent the scale of improvements municipalities can achieve, even given limited budgets. What truly beams from this project, however, is the extensive and imaginative communications activity that accompanies the actual works occurring on-site. This has the potential to multiply the benefits of the project, through successfully influencing others : as more people are inspired to emulate and replicate the measures and principles embodied within the EcoDepot, so the magnitude of its impact increases.

Project Description

Aim In his chronicles of the development of the EcoDepot, Christian’s aim is to illustrate the simplicity of sustainable development, and inspire people to take action. He has employed a number of techniques very useful to raising awareness and bringing about behavioural change – action that lies at the very heart of the Display Campaign.


Costs & funding The key to this development has been to adopt a whole-life costing approach. In addition to calculating the up-front economic costs, benefits such as reduced water, heating and electricity bills are considered, and environmental costs or externalities, such as CO2 emissions associated with the production of drinking water, glass fibre insulation and coal-generated electricity are avoided through the use of rain water harvesting, straw insulation and on-site renewable electricity generation respectively. Bespoke timber-framed buildings cost around €1,480/m2, whereas the prototype ModCell straw insulated system cost around €1910/m2. However, the manufacturer believes that the system is probably over-engineered, and is conducting research to firm up the engineering detail and test for limitations of the design.

_ Along with funding from Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, the City has borrowed against future savings using calculations about reduced running costs and potential income from energy generation - which makes sound economic sense.
Benefits The potential operational savings of this office compared to a traditional office of the same size with air conditioning the savings are impressive :

Energy costs, when compared to a typical air conditioned office, will amount to a reduction from €68,000 to €8,500 – a saving of around €59,500 p.a.


Partnership details The City of York has forged relations with the local development agency, and contractors and supply chains (all the way back to the farmer producing straw !) Developing stronger relationships with information portals like Display and the various press offices, has also been vital to promoting this innovative project.


Achievements As Christian points out :

“Local authorities are, by their nature, difficult ships to turn around. With many departments competing for attention and resources, each with their own priorities, tackling Climate Change is bound to be a complex challenge. With the EcoDepot a small group of councillors and council officers all found each other at the right time and took on the challenge. Working with architects and contractors we have learnt together inspired by the vision that this is our time and that it is our responsibility to act.”

The challenge to bring EcoDepot to fruition within budget meant presenting a clear vision and tackling existing working practices. Budget constraints affected the design of the built form as a more open plan layout was needed which, in turn, affects how the building’s users interact, ultimately shaping the organisation’s culture.

To know more

Organisation name City of York
Contact Kristina Peat
Phone +44 (0)1904 551666

Useful info

Publications Guidance on communications
Websites EcoDepot Blogs


Organisation EuroACE
Contact for question on the case study realisation Winton Smith
Publishing date 15/12/2006

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