What I've Learnt: Greening the Arcola

What I've Learnt: Greening the Arcola

By Feimatta Conteh, Sustainability Manager for Arcola Theatre and Technology Programme Manager & Ben Todd, Executive Director, Arcola Theatre
Date Published: 21 November 2016
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“The work we did in the building was part of a grand vision but we accepted that sometimes good enough is good enough. An image of perfection is inspirational but it good to acknowledge that it might not be achievable.”


Don’t be afraid to have a big bold vision – it gives a framework in which to develop the detailedplan.


When the Arcola Energy project started in 2007, with the ambition of becoming “the world’s first carbon neutral theatre”, sustainability was not on the agenda of most arts organisations. Declaring that ambition stimulated conversations, with people curious about how we would achieve it, and allowed space for different peoples’ ideas whilst maintaining the direction of travel.

An early review began, “the Arcola lives on love and hope rather than money”. This spirit – of not allowing a lack of materials or funding to limit creative vision - is part of our approach to sustainability. If you wait for everything to be in place before taking the first step, you can end up not moving for a long time; get the vision right, start doing it and the rest will have to fall into place.

An infographic from the launch of Arcola Energy presented a fully integrated operation with community engagement workshops, new technology engineers and theatre practitioners – different forms of creativity alongside each other in a sustainable building – with solar pv panels, a biomass boiler and sustainable materials throughout.

It’s satisfying to realise that we’ve achieved this in the Colourworks building, an old paint factory in Dalston we moved into in 2011. The building’s energy is carbon neutral - 100% renewable electricity and a heating system with a biomass boiler fed with waste and scrap wood, including any set that can’t be reused.

Having succeeded in becoming the world's first carbon neutral theatre, we now use the space to demonstrate new energy technologies. People need to see hydrogen fuel cells and DC microgrids for themselves to build understanding of technologies that are part of a low-carbon future.

Although Arcola Energy is now a separate company to Arcola Theatre, with very different activity, the two companies share office space, an ethos and collaborate on projects,including education programmes built around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths).

Acknowledge that not every sustainable initiative can be implemented – whilst we’ve had somegreat achievements, some ideas haven’t quite hit the mark.

I worked with the Front of House team to pilot a paperless ticketing scheme, as I’d calculated that each year we produced over 130kg of card tickets (the majority presumably ending up in the bin).

What seemed like a neat idea – the box office giving audience members laminated cards instead of tickets, for collection by ushers – couldn’t work in practice. Audiences frequently forgot to hand cards in, making it difficult for FOH to work out numbers for each show. We soon reverted back to paper tickets but selected a machine that prints much smaller tickets.

Work with local sustainability networks, and involve your community – Sustainability can bedescribed as three elements with environmental, economic and social factors of equal importance. Arcola has always been a strong part of our local community; we offer over 5,000 opportunities a year in our Creative Engagement programme.

When we moved after ten years at Arcola Street, we wanted to do something with our local community to celebrate our transition, based around an image from the “Future Arcola” brochure from 2009. Future Arcola is a vision of a new-build zero-carbon theatre and renewable energy lab in Dalston.

The image shows a Bayanihan - a Filipino idea of the spirit of communal effort. Traditionally, it is when a community helps a family move by carrying their bamboo house to its new location; the family then hosts a celebration for the community. We invited our local community to help carry the last bits of furniture to the new venue.

The event was a parade, led by a New Orleans style jazz band. I remember chatting with participants, bantering with passers-by and handing out flyers for our first production in the new venue. We claimed the street as ours, making our move part of the narrative of Dalston. The bayanihan was a great celebration which set the intention for the new venue – a space that many people helped to shape where everyone is welcome.

During the 2010-11 renovation we held open days where local people, theatre fans and specialist volunteers were welcome to come and help. We had discussions about the future shape of the building, allowing plans to change by giving space to ideas and suggestions as they arose.

The work we did in the building was part of a grand vision but we understood that sometimes good enough is good enough. An image of perfection is inspirational but it good to acknowledge what is achievable.

There’s a saying that encapsulates the current global situation – “If you want to go fast - go alone; if you want to go far – go together.”

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