National Theatre

A Greener National Theatre
by Robert Butler

April 2010

As you walk south over Waterloo Bridge, looking across at the concrete levels of the National Theatre, the scrolling text which advertises the productions also carries the news that the National is working to reduce its energy consumption. This might seem an unlikely boast for a theatre to make. Audiences know that onstage the best theatre always matches energy with economy, but more and more, the precept holds good offstage too.

In this case, the medium is the message: in 2009 the teletext changed from the old Seefact, which used 1248 lightbulbs - costing £6 each, and all imported from Mexico - to the Philips VidiWall, an 8m x 3m screen using LEDS, or light-emitting diodes. This has produced a 60% energy saving, or 30 tonnes of CO2 per year. At the same time, the external lights on the building, which elegantly alter the National's facade from night to night and from season to season, have switched from discharge lamps to LEDS, which reduces the energy consumption by 70%.

Some of the new low-carbon measures are eye-catching, others are almost invisible. If you drive to the National, you're probably unaware that the fans in the car park that extract the carbon monoxide have been switched off. These fans ran all the time the car park was open, which was 20 hours a day. They have now been replaced by 27 carbon monoxide detectors that only activate the fans when necessary. So far, these fans have hardly ever come on. They are needed, occasionally, when three shows end at the same time and there's a queue to leave, but car exhausts are cleaner today, and the car park is better ventilated. The use of CO detectors has saved the National £30,000 a year.

You may not see the CO detectors either. There's a trial going on in the National's car park to reduce the amount of lighting. In a fifth of the car park, the lights only come on when there's movement, but even when they're down to 10%, visibility is still reasonable. When this trial is rolled out across the National's car park, it will knock a further 3.5% from the NT's electricity bill.

Inside the building, there have been further adjustments. If you head into one of the loos before the show, motion detectors bring the lights on. Sharp-eyed members of the audience may even notice minute particles of sand in the toilet pans. The ground water that surfaces in the basement and carpark has been filtered, treated and pumped through the National's water system as grey water (not for drinking). There used to be even more of this supply, but Thames Water recently mended the pipes in SE1, which has cut down on this informal subsidy for the arts. As you leave the NT's loos, you'll also notice the Dyson airblade hand-dryers, which dry hands in 10 seconds with unheated air. What dries the hands is a sheet of air travelling at 400 miles an hour which uses a quarter of the energy that hot air does.

If you buy a programme on the way into the auditorium, you will see that you are reading this article on paper that is between 75% and 90% recycled. The National requires nearly 60 tonnes of paper a year for its programmes and repertory brochures. That works out at about 750 trees a year. When the National reaches its target of 100% recycled paper (which it hopes to achieve in the next two years) it will be diverting more than 75 tonnes of paper from landfill sites and will have saved nearly 80 tonnes of CO2 a year.

As you take your seat, glance at the lights at the end of the aisles - called "seat-enders" - and you'll see they are all LEDs. When the show begins, most of the 40 or 50 ‘discharge' lamps that light the show will have been tested by the crew at 5pm and then turned off. It used to be that once the lamps were tested at 5pm they were left on till the show began two and a half hours later. It's estimated that if this change in theatre practice was adopted across the West End it would save a megawatt, or a million watts, every night. A megawatt is easy enough to picture: take a single 100-watt bulb and multiply it by ten thousand.

There are also measures that audiences don't get to see. Within the building there are improved showers for cyclists, a loan scheme for members of staff to buy bicycles, a brightly-coloured row of large bins in the canteen for recycling, and the offer of a discount on your coffee at the canteen if you bring your own cup. For a while, pop-ups used to appear on computer screens when staff logged out saying ‘remember to switch off your computer and printer'. There are still night-time checks around the offices to make sure no lights or machines have been left on. You wouldn't want to be the person who was told that they had kept the digital photo frame of their loved ones on all night.

What has driven these initiatives? If you like the bigger picture, you could argue that one answer was the Iranian missile tests. When the Islamic Revolutionary Guard announced it had tested nine missiles simultaneously on 9 July 2008, it sent oil prices - which had already quadrupled between 2003 and 2006 - to a record high. It was at exactly that moment that the National Theatre found itself coming out of a three-year contract with an energy supplier that had kept its fuel bills at an increasingly advantageous level. Overnight the building was faced with a very substantial hike in fuel costs. During that three-year contract, the public mood had also shifted: in 2006, Al Gore released his movie An Inconvenient Truth, James Lovelock published The Revenge of Gaia and the Conservatives produced the slogan ‘vote blue, go green'. Theatres were starting to think more carefully about their carbon footprints.

The two imperatives - economic and environmental - came together and the National's response was to set itself a target. Over three years, it would reduce its consumption of gas and electricity by 20%. At the same time, it would continue to expand its activities. Since 2008 for example, the National has been open on Sundays. It has also substantially increased the amount of work it does in the summer. In 2005, the Watch This Space festival featured 177 shows and gigs over 11 weeks; by 2009, it featured 256 shows and gigs over 13 weeks. The brief, then, has been to increase activity and decrease energy consumption. It has called for some ingenuity. The lighting for the new venue, The Deck, where corporate functions are held, is so efficient that it runs off a single 13 amp socket.

Like other institutions, the National made quick progress with ‘low-hanging fruit': the deal with Philips, who provided the Vidiwall and the LED lighting, almost single-handedly slashed the electricity consumption. But there's a moment when the light bulbs have been changed and the staff are recycling when most of the ‘easy wins' have been made. It's hard then not to hit some barriers. For instance, the car park provides an important income stream. Also, some people don't like using late-night public transport and simply wouldn't buy tickets to the National if they couldn't park. It's also perfectly possible for audiences to find all the information about the season online, but the strong support for the mailing list shows many people prefer to receive repertory brochures in the post. The restaurant has had a great response for its seasonal food that is locally sourced. But the sales of bottled water are also important to the restaurant and bars. (So the task, there, is to ensure that all the bottles are fully recyclable. Indeed they are working to ensure that all the food packaging that comes into the building can be recycled.) The final barrier, of course, is that no-one would dare suggest at the moment that the production values themselves should be compromised for the sake of energy savings.

Theatre is an energy-hungry activity and the National employs 850 staff and 150 actors. In terms of its energy use, this five-acre site isn't one place, it's a number of places, each with its own micro-climate. During this past winter, when some members of staff who work in the east-facing offices (looking towards St Paul's) were switching on extra heaters to combat the cold part of the winter, there were others, in the south-facing offices, enjoying the glow, or ‘solar gain', from the winter sun.

Till now, a limited amount of capital has been sufficient to make the energy reductions. But certain aspects of the building are very energy-inefficient, notably the heat loss through the single-glazed windows, which are all over the building, and where the seals round the windows have deteriorated. This is a building that was conceived in the 1960s when attitudes to energy were very different. The next steps are going to require substantial investment - and a master-plan.

Or rather three master-plans: one for developing the building; one for upgrading the technical requirements of the stage areas; and one for improving the building's environmental performance. For that last plan, everything has been considered, from introducing CHP, or Combined Heat and Power, to a proposal to insulate parts of the roof with grass and plants. The theatre would, quite literally, be going green.

This article is featured here with kind permission of Robert Butler. The original article can be viewed here.

© Robert Butler, 2010

Robert Butler has written four books in the series ‘The National Theatre at Work'. He also writes the ‘Going Green' column for the Economist's Intelligent Life magazine.

The National Theatre's ‘Sense and Simplicity' Lighting Partnership with Philips has won the Environment Award in this year's Hollis Sponsorship Awards