Timber Building
22 February, 2009
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Building by numbers
Published:  22 August, 2008

Exterior view of Kevin McCloud’s house at the Grand Designs Live exhibition

The Facit building system employs digital technology to produce bespoke houses made from prefabricated timber cassettes. David Castle reports

It’s hardly surprising that Facit UK compares its prefabricated timber building system with Lego.
Showcased in the House that Kevin [McCloud] Built at the Grand Designs Live exhibition in May, the Facit approach uses numbered timber-based, ready insulated ‘boxes’ to create bespoke houses.
“The thing about Lego is that it’s the accuracy and tolerances that hold it together,” said Bruce Bell, one quarter of the team behind Facit. “When you put one block on top of another, if it was loose, the whole thing would fall apart. With our system, all the pieces interlock: the stiffness in the boxes is reliant on the timber, not the fixings; when you put one box next to another, the tolerances on site are so tight that you can’t put your fingernail between each cassette. This means the whole system is extremely rigid.”
Described as a “digital method for fabricating intricately designed buildings using computer controlled machines”, the Facit system is the brainchild of designer and artist Bell, architect Nick Wilson, design and production specialist Dominic McCausland and 3D architectural specialist Andrew Goodeve.
Essentially, Facit is a semi-modular system that is digitally designed and produced to create bespoke houses made from prefabricated timber cassettes. These cassettes are manufactured on a CNC router, integrating all the services, and each one has a number etched into it. The numbers correspond to the building plans so that all the contractor has to do on site is follow the plan. Put simply, it’s like building with numbers.
“Prefabrication is very limited – you have to build 1,000 houses to make it cost-effective and it’s all based on cost-efficiencies of standardisation,” said Bell. “What we wanted to be able to do is produce one bespoke house using digital technology and make it cost-effective. We’ve developed a semi-modular system where we can design almost any house. The technology behind it allows the whole thing to be very flexible.”
The team chose a common technology – CNC routing – and the material used is construction grade spruce plywood, a sheet of which is loosely based on what one person can carry.
“We wanted to keep closely to that principle, so our module size is half the width of a sheet, which means that one cassette is very light,” said Bell. “This means that no cranes are needed on site, keeping the cost down, and also that you can have several teams of people working at once.”
Each cassette is divided into two compartments – a top and a bottom – and each has its own cap that can be filled with Warmcel insulation on site. Vertical boxes are used for the walls and horizontal boxes below tie the whole thing together, while header boxes can be used to provide rigidity. For the roof, Facit cassettes fit between Kerto beams. It’s simple, cost-effective, sustainable, rapidly assembled and extremely rigid.
It was a combination of these factors that attracted RIBA award-winning architect Duncan Baker Brown who saw Facit’s system as ideal for presenter Kevin McCloud’s house at Grand Designs Live. The brief was simple: to design and build a sustainable house, using traditional materials and techniques alongside cutting-edge 21st century technology.
“What’s fascinating is that, until this year, we couldn’t have made this house. The materials just didn’t exist,” said Baker Brown. “The prefab system made by Facit is a godsend because it allows us to save so much on waste. And because Facit’s second floor ply laminate is so light, you can lift it yourself. You just need two people and a rubber mallet!”
The Grand Designs house was erected in two days – and the whole thing was bespoke, with Baker Brown co-ordinating all the different elements of the build. “We’ve designed the Facit system so that we can produce every house bespoke,” said Andrew Goodeve. “But we like creating new elements in each build to create a library of components we can reproduce.”
Goodeve and Bell met at university, where they were both studying product design. They eventually joined Foster + Partners, where they met Nick Wilson. Seven years later, Wilson and Bell run an eponymous architectural practice, with offices in Hoxton, while Goodeve has a visualisation business called Glass Canvas near St James’s Park (the other partner Dominic runs Wilder Creative, a furniture maker and designer, with a workshop in Hackney).
A great deal of developmental work has gone into producing the Facit system. Bell and Wilson received funding from the London Development Agency to produce what was initially a research project based on digital fabrication. With the support of the Royal College of Art, they produced a comprehensive study using fundamental techniques that eventually led to the creation of the Facit business.
Researching prefabrication, the pair were amazed to find that it accounts for around only 2% of the market. “We noticed that architects don’t differentiate between fabrication and manufacturing: it’s all lumped in together,” said Bell. “From my background, there’s a big difference. You can put something together in a factory, but if it’s still put together by hand with a tape measure and drawing, there’s nothing intelligent about it: you might as well be doing it on site.”
He believes there’s a big difference between that and actually using industrial manufacturing techniques. “We don’t describe the system we’ve developed as prefabricated – we call it a hybrid system,” he said. “The most important aspect of it is that it’s based on digital information. Architects are always drawing and they use computers to do their drawings, which are very accurate. But you take that information and give it to a builder, who looks at it, gets his tape measure out and interprets it in his own way – and then builds it. Essentially, what we’ve done is developed a system that allows us to get digital information from the computer directly onto the building site.”
Timber seemed like the perfect choice of material. “Timber is the most sustainable material we have,” said Goodeve. “You can make a case for all sorts of things in terms of life-span, but the fact is that timber is the only truly sustainable material. Working with timber has a lot of warmth to it.”
He said that the techniques used in the Grand Designs house are not rocket science but that “it’s the thought processes and design behind each component and how they go together which are unique.” And, with market conditions deteriorating, it’s a time for innovative solutions to shine. “It’s time for people to readdress what they’re doing and an opportunity for us to take it forward,” he said.
The Facit team is in talks about several projects, from a 100m2 private home to a development of five or six homes in London.
“But we are not in it to produce a thousand houses,” said Goodeve. “It’s not the quantity that interests us: it’s the design quality and the integrity of the building. We want to be recognised as the people that do the best system of this kind.”

The semi-modular system is lightweight so no cranes are needed on site

Each cassette is marked with a number that corresponds with the building plans

Keywords: FACIT UK

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