Norfolk know-how

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Technical Editor Bruce Meechan reports on a recent speech by the Minister of State for Housing & Planning, and a specialist facilitator of low energy schemes based close to his Norfolk constituency.

Speaking at the Explore Offsite conference in London at the beginning of February, the Minister for Housing and Planning, Brendan Lewis, told the audience that the two biggest challenges the Government had faced back in 2010 were the “the parlous state of public finances and a broken housing market”. He also spoke of the planning system collapsing under a top down approach and the banks having stopped lending to people perfectly capable of paying their monthly mortgage.

He claimed that during this Parliament 700,000 new homes have been built including almost 220,000 affordable units. Interestingly, due to the reforms of planning, in the year to September 2014 councils granted planning permission for 240,000 homes across the country: so those plots have entered the supply chain – or at least the land banks of the Big Six.

But can we get to the stage of actually constructing a quarter of a million new homes in a 12 month period as Gordon Brown pledged just before “boom” turned to the biggest “bust” of all time? And if so how?

Mr Lewis asserted: “We want to support home ownership and investment in housebuilding. To ensure local control of the planning system, and to avoid the red tape of regulation that can so damage business. But to build the number of homes that we need to see means we cannot rely on the same companies building the same homes in the same way that we have always done – yet expect a different result.”

By way of encouragement for the industry generally he spoke about relieving small builders of the burden of Section 106 contributions and providing finance for firms to develop the smallest of sites: as well as supporting self-builders.

Turning his attention to the conference’s agenda he said: “We also need, I think, to diversify the way we build homes, to embrace new technologies. Manufacturing and civil engineering in Britain have undergone several revolutions in the last century – and yet the way we build most homes remains pretty much static, and innovation in housebuilding is long overdue; and it will be essential in order to deliver the numbers of homes that our country needs.

“It will be vital to build well designed, energy efficient homes, which people desire to live in. Advance House Manufacturing (off-site construction) not only builds high quality homes, but it builds them quickly and efficiently. So whether your are the biggest listed company, a small local housebuilder or someone who wants to design and build their own home – I saw this myself  on two sites in Walsall with the Accord Group – where the homes were built in record time at the rate of two a day, and they were loved by their new residents. Small builders are already innovating and making use of Advance House Manufacturing – including when I saw this in my own county of Norfolk with Beattie Passive houses.”

The Minister’s reference to Beattie Passive seemed significant as the company was not actually amongst the great and the good exhibiting alongside the Explore Offsite conference, staged at the Inmarset Centre near Old Street Tube station. It is, however, a name that has increasingly come up in conversations about low carbon accommodation, and is an organization which has already scooped awards such as Cost and Buildability category at last years Passive Houses awards
Ron Beattie himself has worked his way up the supply chain from being a carpenter, site agent, architect, engineer and then the developer of his own schemes. He recalls: “I set out to create a system approach which would be both simple and allow us to meet higher standards throughout the build process: addressing such issues as fire, acoustics, flooding, radon protection, buildability and cost.  And delivering a Passive House ever time. Then over in Norwich I set myself the target of constructing the UK’s first Code Level 6 property.”

Ron’s ‘Eureka’ moment came while standing atop the scaffolding on that project when he happened to glance down an open cavity and realized the bricklayer had left out the insulation across a whole elevation.

“We have no real control over the quality of our houses,” he lamented. “And I basically wanted to create a system to cut out that performance gap between what is designed and what gets built. What I have come up with can be produced in the factory, on site, in colleges or by self-builders in their garage. Crucially there are only 13 components which go together to make any size or style of dwelling. And we can take any house design and convert it using our Revit model to produce a Beattie Passive house package, complete with all the fabrication drawings and schedules. Then because we know that people build things incorrectly, we have incorporated checks and balances right through the system and test every house to ensure the end result is right.”

The failsafe provisions which Ron Beattie referred to include having the insulation - in the form of adhesive coated Ecobead polystyrene beads - pumped into the envelope towards the end of the build process.

Warm air is pumped into the property to heat up to 35 centigrade; before carrying out a thermal imaging survey to ensure there are no cold bridges in the super-airtight envelope. Every house is signed off by a structural engineer, and testing for sound between dwellings as well as air tightness is conducted.

The loadbearing frame which can currently go to four floors, is formed by fabricating “ladder racks” of 97x47mm timbers and plywood which are then assembled in-situ using hexagon headed screws. The latter are chosen for the simple reason they can be easily undone if the labour has erred from the Sketch-up drawings which also inform the architect or construction manager and the Building Inspector.

While there are similarly manufactured ring-beams at each intermediate floor level, the oversite is another exercise in de-mystifying the build process.

Unless ground conditions are poor enough to require piling, the foundations consist of 750mm square pads spanned by reinforced concrete beams, on a Monarflex DPM and radon barrier. Concrete T-beams then create a permanent void which allows for any moisture which might penetrate during the lifetime of the envelope, to dry out naturally.

Ron Beattie concluded: “We are the only passive certified system provider in the UK – and the only one in the world with our own patented complete system from designing floors, walls and roof to the airtightness method. Also a big part of our ambition is to get young people coming into the industry and training them up to work as Beattie Passive Engineers. It’s a whole new trade and we’re also looking at creating an NVQ.”

In addition to the 170 already going up around the UK there are a further 500 Beattie Passive homes in the pipeline. Beattie Passive Academy in Hethel, Norwich is training self-builders and project engineers for all over the country.  And while the company has so far concentrated on the new-build market, Ron and his team have also developed the Beattie Passive TCosy to regenerates existing housing stock to zero carbon, eradicate fuel poverty, regenerate local communities through skills development and employment, and to provide a return on capital investment.

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