Outside the box

Outside the box

Jonathan Ryder, who has just project managed one of the UK’s largest speculative office developments, explains his plan to transform the housing sector.

You’ve heard of the house that Jack built - but not the one that Jonathan Ryder’s developing. His carbon neutral Chameleon House, patent pending, is aptly named, adapting to almost any shape an occupier prefers.

An “easy concept”, it will meet standards of sustainability applying to the construction industry from 2016 and beyond that.

The house is an eight-year-old vision almost reality, now that Ryder’s able to concentrate on it after completing in January the immense task of assembling Quorum Business Park at Longbenton, North Tyneside.

He was project manager throughout for the £375m-plus park whose 1m sq ft or so of offices has proved to be the UK’s largest speculative office development outside London, attracting prestigious firms at enviable speed.

Jonathan, who’s 49, can now advance this long gestating venture of his own, and he expects prototypes of his Chameleon House to come up later this year at Whitburn and North Tyneside.

Leggo lovers will easily understand one of its principles. Such houses will be built of “boxes”, laid atop each other or side by side. There being few other components, doors and windows can be placed in almost any configuration.

And note: the system can also apply to big non-residential builds such as office blocks, hospitals and schools.

The boxes form highly insulated, airtight entities, mechanically ventilated and doing one air change an hour internally with no heat loss.

It’s goodbye to dust mites too. Energy demand is low. As for appearance, buildings can be timber frame, timber, brick or stone clad, rendered, and with a flat or traditional roof.

As work can be accurately measured, costs will be fixed. Speed of construction will be a unique selling point, for internal work can begin at the end of the first week from the start of the superstructure.

Ryder promises: “Customers will be able to visualise their design, and have that vision managed through to delivery.” This is because building information modelling (BIM) is being used, enabling clients to see beforehand the outcome.

He explains: "BIM’s laser-scanning gives customers accurate 3D and internal visuals of their proposal.

They can determine their preferences with absolute accuracy, whether for an entire housing development or just a loft conversion.” The project site can be plotted on a Google map and linked to a weather station showing how the wind and other elements act around it, and how it thermally performs.

Fixtures inside can be planned around information about how occupants will move within the space. Acoustic and lighting aspects (natural and artificial) can also be ironed out beforehand.

You’ll know in advance the effect of the light through windows as they’re planned, and the effect of internal light fittings; how, for example, shadows would fall from a light when you’re at a desk in the study.

To develop his idea, Jonathan collaborated with architects – notably Tim Bailey, founding partner of xsite Architecture in Newcastle – and other experts such as Mark Dutton, the chartered quantity surveyor and director of Summers Inman construction and property consultants in Newcastle, also Northumbria University, materials suppliers alongside other key stakeholders.

Ahead of the prototypes being built, extensions and alterations to existing buildings are already being offered under the system as a one-stop shop service.

Their planning should take only half the usual time. And while Code 4 is the requirement in sustainability necessary by 2016, builds in Codes 5 and 6 will also be available. To take forward Chameleon and its eco-advantages in both commercial and house construction – hopefully improving North East housing stock generally - Ryder has started up NEBS Projects.

This is an arm of NEBS (North East Building Services), run from Sunderland by his friend and now business partner, Laurence Richardson. NEBS, started in 1999 by Richardson and Gerald Fidler (since retired), has a £3m turnover and a client list that features Lloyds Bank and Homeserve.

Its workforce includes surveyors, contracts managers, estimators and all construction trades, which will enable the firm to tackle Chameleon projects directly.

Laurence, 41, is like Jonathan, a construction graduate keen to innovate in the sector, and NEBS will build the prototype houses working with property agent GVA.

Through software to be made widely available, other contractors and firms of architects and consultants will be able to apply this technique also, promising at last – and paradoxically - to console the veteran folk singer Pete Seeger in his 1963 lament about little boxes made of “ticky tacky” and how they all look just the same.

Stout-hearts eager to build their own home should be able to plan it largely without professional help by spending four or five days mastering the licensed software.

Ryder says: “You’ll purchase it and plug into the modelling system. A button pressed on the computer will tell you what materials to order. You could send your purchase lists to five manufacturers and get five prices back to choose from. You’ll then have all the components and, if you feel competent, can build the house yourself. Your structure will conform to all regulations – no need to call in a qualified engineer. It could all be put on a DVD and run off your x-box. You pay for what you produce. So it’ll be a minimal fee.”

Designing an average size house, Chameleonstyle, might cost £800 to £900. But as it can be achieved without an architect (whose charge might be 5% of a building cost) a few thousand pounds could be saved there.

Your proposal would be welcomed at planning departments since you’d presenting not a plan but an actual model.

If you needed a mortgage you’d have to use an architect or surveyor at some point, but to a lesser extent.

As for developers, since relatively few panels are needed, they could – say, for 200 houses – have them all made at a factory beforehand, reducing the external building time to two days.

And whereas they’re presently deterred from varying house designs now because modifying layout and design is comparatively costly, the Chameleon method could come down to a 10 minute job.

For major buildings like hospitals and schools, various consultants would be needed, but efficiencies would result from working off the same electronic model; BIM is to be a government-stipulated standard within a year or two.

The house that Jack built is all in the mind. The house Jonathan Ryder is developing looks certain to become reality.