First published in the Oxford Times 4 February 2021:
Oxford company’s ‘flat-pack’ building system can help anyone to build a low cost and ultra-low carbon house
An innovative house-building system created by an Oxfordshire business could help to produce the environmentally friendly and low-cost houses Britain desperately needs.
With over 8 million poor quality homes in Britain, the construction industry is being encouraged to build homes that are right for a world that is changing in all sorts of ways, many caused by climate change. FAB-HAB Project, set up by local architectural designer Oliver Margison and sustainable building specialist Kate Brown, has developed a building system which will make it possible for people and communities to build their own high performance homes at a low cost and create buildings that are very energy efficient to live in with almost zero carbon emissions.
“We both disliked how traditional construction relied on carbon-heavy materials”, said Kate Brown. “We have created what we call a digital ‘flat-pack’ design for affordable construction which is net-zero in carbon emissions”. The system can deliver a high-performance living space without the need for specialist technical solutions or even specialised trades.
Houses contribute almost a third of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Even though there is a drive for more sustainable and energy efficient homes, most builders still use conventional materials and techniques.
“We believe there is a better, flexible and more affordable way to design and build homes. It makes it far easier for people to get into the housing market themselves. It should appeal to a self-builder who wants to design their own space but without most of the worries involved. And it can help communities to address problems like a lack of cheap starter homes in their areas. They can pool their effort and build them together.”
Oliver Margison came up with the idea after seeing homeless people on the street in Oxford the same day as he had helped a client to spend a huge amount of money of bathroom fittings. “It was an evening which changed my approach to architecture” he explained. “Our aim now is to put some power back in the hands of people who might otherwise struggle to have their own homes. It is realistic to imagine groups of homeless people helping to build the very homes that will get them off the street. Not into poor quality accommodation, but excellent quality buildings.”
The team has just completed a demonstration building in Dorchester-on-Thames with support from OxLEP Business. “FAB-HAB Projects had a package of support from our eScalate programme to get them ready to scale up in size”, said Helen Brind who manages business support at OxLEP Business. “That included some advice, signposting them to helpful resources and a grant to help them get ready to scale up.”
“We needed advice from people who knew how to create a business with a purpose as well as profit in mind,” Kate Brown explained. “And it was important we could show people how our building system really works. Most of it was built by two teenagers who had never previously attempted anything like it before. In fact, getting the building erected was one of the positive things about the lockdown for us.”
To make it easy to design each building, the components are digitally designed before being sent to a local CNC fabricators with cutting instructions so it can be precisely cut and delivered to the building site as a large flat pack. The whole structure can be assembled by any able-bodied person, even if they do not have traditional construction skills.
FAB-HAB Projects are one of a number of companies based in the county who are part of a sustainable sector. Lewis Knight of Oxfordshire Greentech, an organisation which is encouraging green industries locally, believes there is a lot of potential for more innovation. “It is already proving to be one of the best places to start a green business. With the right type of support for new ideas the sector will grow from strength to strength.”