Monday, April 20, 2015

Building green clean homes from an innovative UK university research on straw

Straw is cheap, good for the environment and an excellent insulator. Straw has so many uses such as building carbon-negative buildings. So, why has straw not caught on as an alternative to concrete, bricks or timber?

I had an interview session with Mr. Finlay White, Manager, Business Development and Marketing, at ModCel™, one of the new and innovative companies in the United Kingdom that constructs buildings using prefabricated straw panels.

What market need did ModCell serve on inception?

Finlay White: ModCell initially started selling into the educational market - building additional classrooms, University buildings etc.

That could have been possible due to your affiliation with the University of Bath?

Finlay White: The panel was invented by an architect (Craig White) and a structural engineer (Tim Mander). It was first used at the University of the West of England, Bristol. It was identified that the straw bale panel would always be a victim of people’s perceptions i.e. 'It’s straw, surely it’s a fire risk’ or/and ‘Straw will rot’ or and/and ‘What about vermin?’ etc. So it was decided at an early stage to be a researched based company to satisfy the preconceptions around using straw. We approached Professor Pete Walker of the University of Bath to see how we could gain funding for research (our MD, Craig White, had worked with Pete Walker on previous occasions due to both being involved as lecturers in the built environment). UK Government matched funding options were identified and a joint submission to the UK DBERR (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform). We were successful with this research application. A number of other research options have since been identified, with a number of these additional funding streams have also been won (including matched funding from the DTi - Department for Trade and Industry, TSB - Technology Strategy Board, Innovate UK, European Commission) The vast majority of these have been with the University of Bath. Our relationship with them is excellent and the research has had very positive outcomes, including UK and European certification being won as an outcome of the research. So far over £4 million of matched funding research has occurred and three research programmes are currently taking place.

Balehaus at Bath - Built by ModCell using straw technology.

Did your customers voice concerns about the sustainability of straw-built houses?

Finlay White: We tend to answer this question before we're ask[ed] it. When talking to people we inform [them] that in the UK there is currently over 3,000,000 tonnes of unallocated straw bale surplus in the UK every year. By unallocated, we mean what is left over after the 9,000,000 tonnes that is grown each year has been used for other purposes e.g. animal bedding, ploughed back into the field etc. This 3,000,000 tonnes equates to roughly 500,000 average sized (90m2) 3 bedroom homes…. In the UK, the target for new homes is 240,000 a year (less than half this number is actually being built at the moment). So, there is more than enough of this ANNUAL co-product to cope with ALL UK building being built each year. Also the production of straw, or should I say of wheat/Barley etc, is actually what is left in the field after the crop of wheat/barley have been harvested. We are not replacing a food crop for a non-food crop. As the straw grows it also sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere. It retains the Carbon atom, through photosynthesis, and releases two oxygen atoms back into the atmosphere. A 1m3 of straw has 211kg of CO2 sequestered. We offer a ‘Carbon negative’ building system. A 3 x 3.2 m2 panel has 1400kg of CO2 sequestered in it.
I’m pretty sure that we offer one of the most sustainable building solutions in the world.

Your product is new, innovative, methinks. How has UK regulations affected your business?

Finlay White: The UK building regulations and European low carbon goals have influenced us greatly. The need to meet these regulations has helped us gain greater market acceptance. This is as a result of achieving the required certification of our panels to meet these codes. We have a daily task of overcoming peoples preconceived ideas about using straw in buildings i.e. “fire’, ‘decay' and ‘vermin’. The certification we have for our panels allows us to illustrate that the preconceptions are incorrect.

Do you cover markets outside the UK?

Finlay White: Not at this moment but we are looking to expand to other countries through licensing of our system or joint ventures. We are happy to speak to business[es] about this opportunity.

This innovative offsite-manufactured straw panels can be easily supplied, installed and buildings created with specifications that meet building regulations.

As a business or homeowner, you can visit the ModCell website and ask for a quote.

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