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BP's Helios House
Sarah Rich, 16 Mar 07


I've always loved the old Steve Martin film, LA Story, for the way it made the absolute reality of Los Angeles seem fantastical and surreal simply by focusing hard on the small, specific quirks of daily life there. It's only fitting, then, that BP chose this city as the first location for their new gas station model -- a green and rather glamorous geometrical structure that shares no resemblance with the standard variety. One would call it futuristic, except, as BP itself says, this is "not a prototype 'station of the future.' It’s a station for today," and it's up and running on the corner of Robertson and Olympic.


How, you ask, can a fossil fuel fill-up station deign to call itself green? It's well-known by now that BP has an aggressive image makeover in the works that involves building an identity around ecological sensitivity. This is merely their newest physical evidence that there may be a walk to accompany the talk. Helios House incorporates such green building elements as:

  • A roof canopy that doubles as a rainwater harvesting tank, and is made of 100% recyclable, uncoated stainless steel
  • A filtration system in the drains that keeps oil and gasoline from running into the municipal system with rain runoff
  • Recycled glass tiling in the restrooms, and recycled glass in the concrete instead of sand
  • A rooftop solar array on the roof that supposedly generates enough power to light 2-3 average US homes and "eliminates 15 to 23 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year."
  • A carbon-capturing, rain-drinking living roof and a green wall
  • Post-industrial scrap metal for sinks and signage
  • Energy-efficient and smart lighting


Needless to say, for all these changes, the stuff coming out of the pump is the same old petroleum product. It begs the question: if you pad your product with layer upon layer of green bonus features, do you earn some points for progressive thinking? Essentially, this place is a show house for green building strategies, completely separate from the stuff BP is selling. Just a few miles away, the new Living Homes platinum prefab prototype is exhibiting the same array of features, the only difference being that it's packaged as a residence instead of a gas station. In this regard, BP is exactly right in asserting that the Helios House isn't futuristic; it's very much a token of the moment, chock full of every bright green sustainable building ingredient. The architecture and use of materials may make it look space-age, but aside from cosmetics, it's totally 2007.


That said, if lots of other gas stations adopted this model, it would undoubtedly have a positive impact from a building and urban design angle. By increasing the number of points in a city that contribute to rainwater control instead of runoff pollution; consumption of renewable energy and resources instead of virgin, non-renewable ones; green surfaces instead of radiant and reflective ones, we improve the environmental conditions around us and to some extent, the environment as a whole. So the point is, the good green ideas put forth by BP are ideas that could (and should) apply to any and all built environments. In this regard, BP is acting as a model for good construction and operations. How this translates to their essential business as a petroleum giant, it's harder to say. One might call this greenwashing, but plenty of reliable sources in the green business sector would assure us that BP's efforts are in earnest, and remind us that sometimes it's the world's worst culprits who must make the biggest and most public leaps toward change.


[images: LAist and NOTCOT]

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A rainwater harvesting tank? In Los Angeles? I have to say as someone who lived in southern california, it seems like theyre just padding their resume by adding a feature that would barely be used over the course of the year, but looks good in press releases.

Posted by: Matt Rooney on 16 Mar 07

so the question is, by what fraction of a percentage does this reduce the impact of the customers' vehicles.

the downside of this isn't only greenwashing. it's pretending that fossil fuel use increase can be done sustainably, through better architecture, which f'ed up. is this a new gas station? the article doesn't say. did BP get rid of a handful of LA-area gas stations and lobby for higher mileage and increased spending on transport and cargo alternatives, along with this? the article doesn't say.

how is this not people do at its logical limit? green gas station. why not safety gunpowder? or healthy forests...?

Posted by: hibiscus on 17 Mar 07

Right. A gas station harvesting rainwater for you to righteously wash down your mud-spatted SUV. Like Budweiser telling you to drink responsibly. Like Trojan putting a vending machine in the rest room. Like a wounded U-Boat sending up an oil slick. Pass me over, StarMan. Mission accomplished boys and girls. Back to Halo, if you don't mind.

Posted by: Smash on 17 Mar 07

The shell looks like it's made from aluminum which is not a sustainable product. In fact so much energy is consumed in the production of aluminum that the Canadian government, when it put together policy for the export of this material, nearly decided to give the portfolio to the ministry of energy because they considered it exporting energy in a "bar" form.

So the real question is: If this company really does produce spaces like this - do the values of the architects and companies involved in the production of these places and spaces, actually really understand the impact of their choices upon the environments that they are claiming to protect? Why are they following this path?

Posted by: a cricital comment on 17 Mar 07

I would suggest that knocking BP for being a (boo! hiss!) oil company that's 'doing the right thing' isn't very productive.

Assuming you own a car (which, I suspect, is something of a necessity in LA) would you prefer to use a station like this, or the station down the road, whose owner might call CO2 'life'?

The thing that distinguishes greenwashing from simply thinking in too light a shade of green is commitment, and how open they to listening to grumbles like the ones above..

So, I will use BP's own rating system and pronounce it 'good'.

It remains to be seen what BP thinks (or can be persuaded to think) is 'better' and 'best'.

(BTW, I think they got that slogan from an old Telstra campaign of the early nineties, so they're into recycling, too ;-)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 18 Mar 07



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