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Prefabrication goes push button
Autumn 2006
Published:  10 October, 2006

The ecoTECH house range covers a wide variety of styles and formats

New company ecoTECH is on the brink of bringing hi-tech Swedish timber housing to the UK. Mike Jeffree reports

It's a bit of a take on Victor Kayam's iconic Remington advertising slogan: “I liked the product so much, I bought the company”. Fellow entrepreneur Christine Hynes was so impressed with Swedish timber-based houses when she was looking for one for herself, she set up a business to bring them into the UK.

Her company, ecoTECH, was officially launched by Swedish ambassador Carlsson Staffen at the ecoBuild exhibition at the start of the year and now has partnership arrangements with 28 specialist timber house manufacturers. It has its own team of erectors, its first UK buildings start to take shape this autumn and forward orders are running into millions of pounds.

EcoTECH house types range from top-notch detached properties, to town houses, terraces and multiple-occupancy and multi-storey apartment blocks (up to nine floors), but all are based on variations on quick-build closed timber panel construction.

Thanks to other supply partnerships across the buildings products sector, the company also offers hi-tech automation and environmental monitoring and control systems as part of the deal. “It all depends on the specification,” said Hynes. “If clients want, we'll provide the complete turnkey package; from design, through construction, to fitting out.”

And it all started when Hynes was house hunting. At the time, her original company, Red Hot Vanilla, an IT and telecoms marketing specialist and business services provider which continues alongside ecoTECH at offices in Newbury, was helping to develop the market presence of a “leading US telecoms operation” in Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. This involved spending a lot of time in Sweden. Hynes made friends there and stayed in their houses. Her conversion to timber building had begun. “I'd always lived in conventional brick or stone houses,” she said, “but I loved these modern, airy, energy efficient-

buildings and decided that I wanted one for my family.”

The search for the Hynes' dream home, however, was edged to one side as the first seeds of the ecoTECH project were sown. “The more I thought about it, the more it made sense,” said Hynes. “The Swedes have been building these cost-effective, environmentally-sound homes for decades. In the UK we have the government and Building Regulations pushing the building industry towards greater energy efficiency, CO2 reduction and modern methods of construction. We also have a growing need for more affordable housing, especially for key workers. It made sense to bring the two things together; Swedish products, experience and know-how, and UK demand.”

As part of her groundwork for the new business, Hynes made contact with Swedish government bodies, including the Invest in Sweden Agency and the Exportradet trade council. “They've been very positive, very supportive – as has the Swedish Embassy,” she said.

Initially, she admitted, the Swedish house producers were not so easy to win over. “To be honest, some thought I was barking mad. They were focused on Sweden and the other Nordic countries and just hadn't sighted the UK as a penetrable market.”

It took four years jetting back and forth over the North Sea, but eventually Hynes overcame the reservations and established the basis of ecoTECH's network of partners.

The company now bills itself as an import agent and “sustainable building consultancy”, acting as the conduit for Swedish construction into the UK (and it is also evaluating opportunities in Ireland). More than once Hynes stressed that “we are not developers – the developers are our customers”.

EcoTECH, she added, effectively matches up projects with the right Swedish timber building supplier. “We can provide design and architectural services, or we can build to the developer's specification and work with their architects – it’s very flexible. And we may have one of our partners working on a single project or, depending on the scale of the development and various housing types needed – say a mix of detached and terraced housing – we might have several manufacturers on it.”

Once the design details are finalised, all the components will be made in Sweden and trucked over.

The detail will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and project to project, all being site specific, but the essence of all the buildings will be their closed timber panel structure. Broadly this comprises a 45x120mm, 600mm centre stud frame sandwiched between plasterboard, a polythene vapour barrier, a chipboard layer on the interior and impregnated fibreboard on the exterior. The interior cav-ity is filled with FG insulation and there is a 45mm insulated cavity between exterior surface and external cladding.

EcoTECH house types range from top-notch detached properties, to town houses, terraces and multiple-occupancy and multi-storey apartment blocks
“The choice of external skin is up to the local planning agency, developer and architect,” said Hynes. “It could be render, timber, composite panel, stone or brick and, depending on the material and specification, this can also be factory fitted. There's a similar choice of roofing options.”

The panel structure enables electrical and other service ducting to be built in and doors and highly insulated, treble-glazed windows are also ready-fitted.

“With all the prefabrication undertaken in a controlled factory environment, you get precision and uniformity which means a high performance building,” said Hynes. “It's also about leveraging cost for the client. Because the components are supplied ready to erect, the building process is quicker, so developers are spending less time on site and creating much less waste.”

EcoTECH promises delivery on its buildings in as little as 12 weeks. Then its own 15-strong Swedish erection crew will arrive to put the structure up on pre-prepared footings. “We also want to work with companies in the UK to train their people in this form of construction,” said Hynes. “We're currently developing our own training programme and we'll create bespoke training seminars for individual building companies.”

The internal “systems” ecoTECH provides include a range of products from Swedish domestic heating specialist NIBE, such as ground source heat and exhaust air heat pumps, and “controlled domestic ventilation” technology which provides water heating and heat recovery systems in a single package.

“Combining the construction method and this sort of technology means very low energy costs – as little as £100 a year for an apartment, to £300 for an average family house,” said Hynes. “Our houses will also achieve excellent ratings under the BRE EcoHomes system and a 5-star rating for the government's proposed Code for Sustainable Homes.”

Hynes also brings her IT and telecoms background to bear on the operation, with another ecoTECH partner Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems, providing “intelligent housing” systems. These range from central computer control for the whole house, through energy monitoring and control products, central locking and other security technology, to cameras and alarms for disabled and sheltered accommodation and integrated communications, entertainment and computer systems. Like a car, the hi-tech house will come with its own operator's manual.

Hynes herself is clearly a fan of all the latest wizardry, demonstrated by her ability to call up the ecoTECH web page on her 02 I-mode-equipped phone with the alacrity of a teenage texter.

“A recent survey found that a phenomenal percentage of business in the City of London is now conducted by hand-held,” she said, “and in the future it will also become second nature to control your home environment and security remotely by phone or online.”

Grey water systems and rain recycling can also be built in as part of the ecoTECH package, as can bathroom and kitchen fixtures and fittings. For the client who wants everything, a house can also be fitted out with furniture from IKEA (naturally). “Depending on the specification, we can also go to John Lewis,” said Hynes. “We'll also handle flooring, painting and lighting, if required.”

ecoTECH has just unveiled Organic, a new range of Swedish-made energy-
efficient houses based on structural insulated panels and a pod-type structure
The finished buildings comply with the stringent requirements of the BRE’s LPS 2020: 2006, the Standard for Innovative Systems, Elements and Components for Residential Buildings, and meet the warranty requirements of BLP, Zurich, Premier and NHBC – and they'll come in at as little as £46/ft2. “We can achieve this because of the method of construction and because we've got a lean business model, with no intermediaries between our manufacturing partners and the client,” said Hynes. “Again, it's about leveraging cost and providing the efficiencies of a one-stop shop.”

EcoTECH's first projects, all for private developers, include cluster developments and individual houses, two- and two-and-a-half-storey terraces and two- and three-storey apartment buildings. Some of these, it is hoped, will be complete this year and next spring the company is also looking at a 1,000-unit mixed development, comprising housing, office buildings, restaurants and car parking.

As for the business itself, ecoTECH aims to continue to develop its supplier partnership network and broaden its customer base. As well as developers and architects, housing associations and local authorities are among the targets.

The company is also expanding its UK team, with Tony Woods, formerly of the BRE, coming on board as technical director.

Now the ecoTECH ball is well and truly rolling, Hynes plans to get her own house built too.

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