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Hybrid homes
Winter 2006
Published:  11 December, 2006

Platz Haus expects the Komfort design to be popular in Britain

Platz Haus is bringing its prefabricated houses, blending post and beam and closed panels, to the UK. Stephen Powney reports

Driving through southern Germany can be an educational experience when it comes to housing. Whether it is the big eaves, individual front doors or just the non-standard look, the houses grab your attention. It is a million miles away from the bland brick and white plastic windows which dominate British housing. Design, quality and choice rule the roost here. So why can't the same be true in Britain?

My taxi driver gave a clue as to the reason. “In Germany, people expect 150% quality from their house,” he said. Other countries, he reasoned, don't have the same high standards.

There are, of course, other factors at work in Britain, such as planning, the cost of land and a housebuilding industry dominated by large companies. But UK homebuyers are now being offered the opportunity of building the German way.

Platz Haus is one of the many German timber frame home manufacturers to open up for business in Britain. The

family-run enterprise, with sawmilling and brewery origins, is based near Friedrichshafen (of Zeppelin fame) close to the Swiss border.

It established a UK office earlier this year and is on a mission to convert self-builders and small- to medium-size developers of the benefits of its factory-produced product.

Lovers of the timber and glass homes popularised in Britain by Huf Haus will be interested in Platz's Komfort and Fusion homes, two of seven different ranges it is offering. Platz has made no secret of its ambition to take on Huf, but aims to differentiate itself by offering an interesting twist on the timber and glass home.

It claims to be the only manufacturer who is combining the wood (post and beam) and glass look with closed panel walls on an industrial scale. This hybrid solution, Platz's Fusion range, is aimed at homebuyers attracted to the post and beam/glass look but limited by planning restrictions and concerns about being overlooked by neighbours.

Typically, these homes feature full glass elevations on the south side to let in light and a better insulated panel construction on elevations where privacy is needed. The load is usually split between the panels and post and beam.

Platz believes this combination will have many advantages for the UK market, where plots are generally smaller than on mainland Europe. The company also has a semi-detached house design over 2.5 storeys designed to exploit the UK market potential for semi-detached homes.

Platz has set a target of building 10-12 UK homes in 2007. It has five active projects, on which contracts are being prepared, with two already having planning permission. The projects are in Leeds, Exeter, Scotland (Loch Tay), the Isle of Wight and north London. Of these, three are Komfort (classic wood and glass design) houses, one is a Fusion and one an architecturally-designed home. The latter is a version of a Scottish long house measuring 27x5m, featuring a zinc roof and geothermal heating system.

A Platz Haus is normally weathertight in two to five days and completed, including finishes, in 14 weeks
“We do not want to become a volume housebuilder,” said UK business manager Helmut Gross. “There are enough people in England to appreciate a good quality house. The main advantage we want to offer to the prospective purchaser is we build a house and do all the related work as well.

“Levels of interest are really high and a growing number of UK customers have already visited our factory and show homes in Germany.”

Gross, who is spreading the Platz message 24/7 by virtue of his Smart car emblazoned with Platz Haus advertising, said the company's contemporary houses could merge with their environment but emphasised that the right plot was needed.

He describes Huf as the “Mercedes” of the wood and glass homes market and Platz as the “BMW”. A big difference between Huf and Platz is the former connects its glulam beams with screws, while Platz uses traditional dovetail joints.

Platz's spruce glulam beams are heart-free, with defects cut out and can be manufactured up to 11m long, with posts up to 3m high. Beams can be given a transparent finish, to let the natural beauty of wood shine, or be painted.

Standard exterior closed panel walls are 26.5cm thick and offer a U-value of 0.19W/m2k. The void between studs is filled with either mineral wool, hemp or fibreglass insulation, while the exterior is faced with high density fibreboard, insulation matting and render or other exterior finish.

As much production as possible is completed in the factory. This includes making holes for drainage pipes and cuts for electrical sockets and ducting. Platz also makes the entrance doors, sliding doors (can be up to 4m long), bespoke shelving and decking. Metal working and drainage/heating workshops ensure outsourcing is minimal.

There are three floor structures – the “Trend” ceiling with gaps built in to accommodate insulating stone aggregate, solid tongue and grooved glulam, and standard joists filled with insulation.

A design studio offers a vast choice of fixtures and fittings, from floor tiles, to taps and the latest in electronic systems. This one-stop shop approach is typical in Germany.

The company believes its designs will prove popular with UK customers
Platz believes UK customers will buy into the German design of its homes. “There is no need to change the designs to fit into the English market,” said Gross. “We expect more than 50% of sales in the UK to be either Komfort or Fusion houses. I think we will find enough buyers who like our German contemporary houses, with only small design changes.”

Sensible design features include projecting eaves to protect the exterior building envelope, replaceable end caps for projecting external beams to stop moisture ingress, while windows tilt to the inside to make cleaning easier.

On Platz's Belcanto range, similar to Fusion but without any glass façade, metal strips and aluminium shutter boxes perform both a functional and design role in the exterior. Internal downpipes are often ribbed and designed with 45O angles to eliminate irritating gurgling.

Light and space are big features. Ceilings on the ground floor of a Fusion house are 2.67m high compared to about 2.4m for a typical new English property. The full height of the roof is utilised on the first floor with visible purlins adding an architectural feature.

Meanwhile, the high cost of UK land presents Platz Haus with an opportunity to use precast concrete cellars, a common feature in German homes, to increase a house size by 30%. Cellars could be used for storage, a gym or even a home cinema.

In Germany the total lead time for a project, including the planning process, is seven to eight months. The actual production of a Fusion/Komfort home takes about one week, and it is weathertight in two to five days. The on-site build process is normally about 14 weeks, including completion of interior decoration, heating systems, electrics and fixtures and fittings.

So, how much does all this cost? A 185.58m2 (2,007ft2) four-bed Fusion house delivered as a full turnkey package in the south-east of England would cost about £245,000. This excludes ground work, floor slab, access to utilities, landscaping and VAT.

There are big reductions for a shell-only contract, but Platz expects English homebuyers to go the full turnkey route.

What Platz hopes to bring to the housing market is a similar experience to buying a new car, where you can choose models, features and colours all to suit your individual needs and delivered to an exact timetable.

“It is the same psychological effect as going to buy a new car and driving it away,” added Gross.

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