Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Garden office greenwashing?

We featured Glassbox yesterday and Shedworking regular Bill Kratz made a long and pertinent comment which I think deserves its own post:
"Let me preface this comment by saying that I really like the look of the Glassbox product. That being said, their website raises a couple of issues in my mind.

"1) The site states that pricing starts at 18,000 Pounds plus VAT. The smallest Glassbox plan seems to be 3.3m x 3.3m, or 10.89 sq m (117 sq ft). This puts the cost per square meter of this little Glassbox at something above 1,650 Pounds/sq m (~= $302/sq ft). At least by American standards, this puts the cost well into the area of custom (bespoke) projects. So the question is...what benefits does the customer accrue by purchasing a Glassbox rather than contracting for a customized design?

"2) Alex is correct that they "proudly trump their eco qualities." While some of their claims (especially the "usual" ones) are probably good ones, a few others seem to slip into the category of "greenwashing" (a great new term coined by the publishers of an interesting site on the subject at http://www.greenwashingindex.com/ ). For example, the Glassbox site says, "you will be investing in not only your home but in the future of our planet." Huh? Just how does purchasing a Glassbox bring returns for the future of our planet? Perhaps an argument could be made that a Glassbox is a better eco choice than some other structure, but either way resources are being used, not saved or "producing earnings on an investment." I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with purchasing a Glassbox (or any other shed, addition, extension...) or with consuming the resources necessary to produce that structure. I'm just pointing out that the hyperbole of their claims may not reflect the same honesty and minimalism that their design aesthetic reveals."
I'd be interested to know - as would Bill - what you think of the above. Please comment below.


  1. We have lived in a consumerist culture in the West for at least a century. It's no small irony that, when our consumerist tendencies create a genuine threat to our environment (both on macro and micro scales), our first response is to consume "green" products -- not to lessen our consumption.

    At the center of the consumerist zeitgeist is the identification of who we are with what we have. A new fuel-efficient automobile may say something about us, but if we've sold the gas-guzzler to someone else, the net effect on the environment may actually be worse. Likewise, if we purchase an energy-efficient shed, it's only "green" if our need for the shed lessens our need for something else that consumes more resources.

    We could start discussing a hierarchy of needs here -- the need to work at home sted drive vs the need to have a quaint (but underused) retreat vs the need to conserve, etc. -- but this post has run on long enough.

    As my father used to say, "A bargain is a bargain only if you need the thing that's being sold."

  2. What it boils down to is telling the consumer: 'Spending $300 a square foot on our glass box will make you a better human being.'

    Yeah, that's it. It's not really about spending $36,000 on yourself. You're saving the planet! Single-handedly! Securing a sustainable future for our children. The children! My God, won't someone please think of the CHILDREN!

    But seriously, the idea that a residential structure costing over $300 per square foot *wouldn't* be well-insulated is ridiculous. For that kind of money, it had better be. This is akin to advertising a Ferrari with the breathless promise that this automobile comes complete with tires and a radio.

  3. Anonymous11:28 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Actually, Zig, if you'll read MY post carefully, I don't question the motives, abilities, or morals of you, your coworkers, or your company.

    My issue is with a society that, when it perceives a threat to its way of life, exercises the same tendency that's causing the threat as a new marker to show itself above the threat. Not rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, but hauling the Duncan Phyfe sofa out of the lounge to go down in luxury.

    If I have anything to say about you and your company (now that you raise the issue), it's that you are marketing to a niche of people who think that buying something new and expensive and green will be a social marker of their superiority to the unenlightened. Is there something wrong with that? I dunno. I don't have a comparable product to sell these folks, so it's an issue I don't face.

    In truth, I find the design of your glassbox both elegant and functional (based on the photos). I'd be proud to have one in my back yard.

    But Zig, your attitude -- if it were as classy as your design, maybe we could turn this into a meaningful discussion.

  5. 1) with all due respect to the nice people at greenwashing index, they did not coin the term, which has been around since 1986 and was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, discussing the silly signs in hotel bathrooms that read "save the planet, re-use your towel"

    2) It is a constant source of dismay and aggravation that every time a small prefab or shed goes up on a website, the cry is heard (primarily from America) that ITS TOO EXPENSIVE! with a price per square foot number, of course. Building small, with quality materials and good design,
    limited numbers in production but with marketing, overhead, purchasing in small quantities, is expensive. But we are dealing with a culture that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  6. Lloyd --

    1) Thanks for the "greenwashing" correction. I'm guilty of one of my own pet peeves, i.e. not checking facts before publishing (or speaking) a comment. Indeed, I don't think the greenwashingindex.com folks ever took credit for coining the term; I just got that idea stuck in my head somehow.

    2) I agree with much about your cultural conclusion. However, if you check my original comment carefully, you'll note that I while I used a per square foot valuation, I was doing so primarily for comparative purposes vis-a-vis custom or bespoke projects. My intent was not to complain about the cost (I am a small business person myself, and know all too well the costs of production, marketing, overhead...), but to ask what other readers thought were the benefits of this prefab solution versus custom construction, given that the investment is roughly the same. In other words, exactly what does create the value that you speak of?

    Bill --

    I'm generally on your side in this conversation, but your criticism that Glassbox is "marketing to a niche of people who think that buying something new and expensive and green will be a social marker of their superiority to the unenlightened" may be going a little bit too far. It might be fair to say that their marketing materials make one feel a bit that way (I'm not sure that I would go even that far myself), but the truth is that we don't really know who their customers or prospective customers are. I'm not for broad-brushing or pre-judging a group of consumers based on the marketing of a company that might be targeting them.

    Now, your comment that if Zig's attitude "were as classy as (his) design, maybe we could turn this into a meaningful discussion." ... very well said!

    Zig --

    In the light of a new day, let's take a deep breath and relax if we can. Notwithstanding the comments of others, the issues I originally raised were not much more than what a prospective customer might wonder. First, what are the benefits of your product when compared with those of an alternative? For example, the prefab solution might guarantee better quality control. Second, what exactly do you mean by one of your advertising statements, and is that statement as well thought out as your physical product? Perhaps you would like to take another go at addressing those issues specifically.

    To All --

    Well, at least we got some commenting going. Cheers.....Bill Kratz

  7. Anonymous9:21 PM

    Here at InsideOut Buildings, as well as being a garden office company that promotes sustainable building, we are also an architects practice.
    At the moment small house extensions cost anything from £1,600 to £2,000 + vat per square metre, so glassbox.co.uk's prices are spot on for current building costs for structures attached to an exisitng building.
    As far as their eco-creditials are concerned they seem to be providing good levels of insulation, but we would also need to know how 'manufactured' their materials are and how much embodied energy they contain.
    However, I don't feel they are making any false claims.
    In the garden office market we have to put up with companies declaring that their buildings are eco-friendly and 'fully insulated' when all they have used is 50mm of insulation in the walls and roof and mountains of plastic.
    We also have companies claiming to be 'green' and using pvc windows!
    I have tonight been reading another company's on-line blurb claiming that their studio is 'just like a house' because they have used a 100mm sipp to construct the building. However, the building would not meet UK building regs, in the way that a house would [and all our buildings do.]
    The small buildings market is full of greenwash, which makes it hard for those of us who maintain very high standards to differentiate ourselves from the companies that are economical with the truth about their specification. I think that glassbox look professional and honest in comparision with a lot of garden office companies.
    I wish trading standards regulated the content of websites!
    Lynn Fotheringahm of

  8. Thank you Lynne for a balanced and intellectual appraisal of "real" cost here in the U.K.

    Perhaps i was a bit harsh with my comments for which i apologise...ish.

    Keeping our system at a reasonable price is critical to our companies standpoint and maintaining an energy efficient product absolutely key.

    And as regards to "greenwashing"....well thats simply not true.

    With respect I am no Eco-evangalist.

    But i do know that we produce a stunning product with stunning levels of insulation at i hope a reasonable price.

    Anyway enough of the sales pitch !

    Ultimately we do what we do both from a professional standpoint and behave how we behave with i hope a clear consciousness from an environmental agenda.

    And you are correct.

    This is a business first.

    I make no apologies for that.But we do and always will behave in an ethical fashion and give fair and reosanable costings to our clients.

    These days people see right through sales "mumbo-jumbo" and demand to be treated in a fair and reasonable fashion.

    Many thanks for your comments.



  9. Mmmm... interesting comments! Initially I though Glassbox seemed very expensive, but I take on board the comments about current UK house extension costs being about the same, in which case Glassbox is OK.

    I note also from their website that they seem to be specifying FSC timber etc which is good. Insulation levels are higher than currently required which is also good. But these things don't necessarily make a building green - just well insulated and well built.

    The problem is that truly being green is at odds with most consumerism. To be truly green, one would have to ask whether the extension/shed office was really, really needed and whether you could do as well with less.

    I am not 'green' in the above sense, but am trying to get there. I am also a businessman and of course if all my customers were truly green, they'd buy very little from me - oh dear!

    The Glassbox is really nice looking piece of work - it looks finished to high standard and I'm sure people who purchase them feel they have spent their money well. However, Zig's comments/attitude would totally put me off dealing with that company - you need to chill and learn to take constructive criticism!

  10. The problem with trying to compare costs in different countries is that costs in different countries are....well pretty different !

    As any contractor will tell you cost of materials,labour, transport and fuel, project management, office support staff, marketing, after care etc etc. Well the list is unending.

    And then if you make a profit the government kicks you in the teeth with corporation tax.

    Do not get me wrong i love being in business for all its stresses and strains. And if you as a company provide cutting edge products then there is a cost associated with this. Nonetheless i know we give value for money.

    And that is important to our company.

    Quality and value.