Beyond Petroleum through Working Green

[SEE close-up.]

Even when immense fortunes are spent on vaulted, cathedral spires and overblown modern art, most corporate headquarters do not impress and much as boast

The offices of BP in Surrey, just outside of London, however, struck me viscerally – they seem to be putting their money where their mouth is.

Since merging with Amoco in 1998, and subsequently re-inventing their brand as "Beyond Petroleum", the British based multi-national oil company has promoted their research in alternative fuels, solar power and recycling. They define their brand values as such:

BP believes in being performance driven, innovative, progressive and green in everything we do and say.

I must admit: I have a deeply cynical prejudice towards such grand declarations.

When I hear: "Green in everything we do and say"; I say: "Ha! Easy to say, hard to do!"

Now, when filling my tank beneath BP's sunny green and yellow logo (filled with bright promises of clean skies, warm light and growing things), I'll admit to having been quite skeptical as to whether BP was truly walking the talk. However, the buildings lived up to the brand in every aspect.

The campus in Surrey is comprised of glass walls offices, seemingly suspended from mast-like spines that puncture the roof line, sending cables to all corners and cornices like vast office park galleons. At first blush, the impact is rather jarring, with long rows of metal blades hang from the sides like vast displays of razor blades. Sounds imposing and it is. But, it intrigues as well.

Very "ouchy" looking.

However, closer inspection reveals these "razors" to be rows and rows of solar panels. The post-modern street lights are actually halogen spots with reflective panels to bounce light in gentle pools at night.

Inside, every well crafted icon and information graphic speaks of recycling paper and bottles, and general awareness of safety and consideration. A small green gremlin mascot (apparently a metaphor for the evils of wastage) reminds the viewer that recycling even one plastic bottle saves the equivalent energy of burning a 60 watt light-bulb for three hours.

Each time I was escorted to another floor, I was verbally, but gently, reminded to hold on to the handrail for safety. Numerous posters admonish the use of cell phones (they cause distraction which can lead to accidents!) and even exhort turning them off inside the building.

The cafeteria redefined the corporate canteen: I loaded up with fresh squeezed carrot-orange juice, Mediterranean chicken and couscous, an apple, a banana and (because I've been good) sponge bread with custard. Even the BP cafeteria ladies were dressed more like crisp, sober Mennonites in stiff black caps and skirts, rather than the gruff, grease-stained, hair-net-totting cafeteria ladies of my youth.

Every chair was ergonomic, every bulb the non-flickering kind, usually bounced off of ceiling or wall instead of beating down on the office drones. In fact, there seemed to be no drones.

Let's hope they truly lead the way through their fourth and final "brand value":

Green - demonstrating environmental leadership

United around a vision of environmental leadership and recognition that the challenge to develop cleaner energy must be met, we are committed to the proactive and responsible treatment of our planet's natural resources and to the development of sources of lower carbon energy.

All in all, my visit gave me some hope for the future. If a big, bad oil company "gets it" when it comes to the importance of design, conservation, alternative fuel, renewable energy, safety, healthy work places and nice lunch ladies, there is hope for the rest.

NOTE: Postcard from London on sustainable architecture was posted by Jamais Cascio, contributor to Other suggestions for information on London's new initiatives was posted by Tim Aldrich of the Forum for the Future Tim works for the London Sustainability Exchange - or LSx - which is aiming to make London the world's first sustainable world city. Lots of resources and info on what's going on in London.