Want to see the future of net-zero, healthy living housebuilding in Scotland? Then look no further than Inverness-based MAKAR, writes Beverley Brown  

AYEAR on from COP26 and has anything fundamentally changed? Judging by the results so far, many people would say very little, and certainly the pledge made at COP26 in Glasgow to limit global warming to 1.5C has gone awry, given the UN recently warned the world is heading for a 2.6C rise and climate catastrophe.

However, what COP26 did do was instil greater awareness, ambition, and sense of urgency for the need to change the way we live and interact with the eco-system. 

But while many sectors have fully embraced new technologies and materials to this end – the shift to electric vehicles in the automotive industry a prime example – within the construction industry change has been painstakingly slow, despite evidence that the built environment in Europe is responsible for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from the energy consumed in delivering and operating homes and other buildings. 

On the upside, headway is being made and leading the evolution in custom-build net zero carbon housing – which has quietly been growing for the last 20 or so years– are the Scottish Highlands and Islands, where Inverness-based MAKAR is at the forefront and ready to progress to the next level.

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MAKAR’s founder/director is architect Neil Sutherland, who believes that instead of being a net contributor to greenhouse gases, housing could contribute significantly to the solution – and all it would take is a change in technical attitude, choice of materials, and method of delivery. 

“It’s now widely recognised the only plausible way to deliver net zero carbon housing is through the use of locally grown timber-based systems and off-site construction, which is what we deliver at MAKAR,” he says.

“We design and manufacture healthy, beautiful net zero and Passivhaus accredited homes using Scottish-grown timber – homes that are a joy to live in and contribute to the health of people and our planet. It’s not enough to invest in renewable energy generation: we must also ensure our lifestyles tangibly support nature-recovery, reduce energy demand, and symbolise the departure from the linear extractive economy to the regenerative circular low carbon economy, and the Scottish Government’s Just Transition currently underway.” 

An apprentice engineer at the age of 16, Sutherland came into architecture later in life and studied in Aberdeen and Chicago, motivated primarily by the desire to change people’s lives. On graduating, he joined Howard Liddell Associates (Gaia Architects) where he worked on ecologically driven projects. In 1992 he moved to Glenelg to work in timber and land management, during which time he set up his own architectural practice, linking his knowledge and love of indigenous timber with architecture. 

A move to Inverness in 1999 enabled him to scale up his client base, set up a construction side to the business (“architects operate within a restricted sphere, which is why we broke from the confines to deliver homes as well as design them”) and become an award-winning architect-led design, manufacture, and assembly company working across the whole of the UK. 

MAKAR has historically offered a complete design and built turnkey service. However, focussing on what they do best, the company is strategically concentrating on shell only, or a wind and watertight offering partnering with other progressive companies for full turnkey delivery. 

HeraldScotland:

Sutherland believes this is an inevitable progression whereby the high-quality shell or fabric of a building with a longevity of seven generations or 150 years, is enhanced by multiple specialist installations; micro-renewables, kitchens, shower rooms, fit out generally etc. These installations change over time. In the case of equipment which with progressive homes is moving fully towards electrical equipment and appliances, require to be optimised at all times, given the ultra-low energy requirements of advanced carbon-negative/energy-positive homes. This trajectory fully endorses the emerging circular economy whereby built elements are lightly integrated and easily re-manufactured for optimisation.  

“Cop26 was an opportunity to get away from negativity and gloom and doom and change the narrative. Our aim is to inspire people in terms of how they live – and health and wellness is at the centre of what we do,” says Sutherland. 

“We need to transition rapidly from fossil fuel dependency to a sun and photosynthesis relationship, an ecological civilisation ensuring the materials and methods we use make a positive impact on the environment over the lifespan of a building. The skills shortage in construction also needs to be addressed – but to inspire and attract young men and women into the built environment means we must eradicate the perception of a building site being about mud, cement mixers and wheelbarrows. How exciting or enticing is that for young people born into a digital age? 

“Employing local, sustainable materials, digital methods and innovative advanced off-site manufacture and assembly processes is now widely recognised as the future of new houses – and as one of the ten companies which make up the Offsite Solutions Scotland network, MAKAR is well underway with this reality.”

HeraldScotland:

Founder and director of MAKAR homes, Neil Sutherland

 

Central to this is timber, Scottish timber to be precise. “When most people think about forests, they don’t connect it with housing,” says Sutherland, who reveals 81 per cent of timber used in Scotland is imported.

“The UK is the second largest importer of timber in the world, second only to China,” he continues. In Scotland we have the trees as an expanding resource but lack vision as to what we do with them. Investment in the Scottish timber processing sector has resulted in consistent quality structural and cladding products entirely suitable for high quality outcomes, yet there are significant gaps with the supply chain. 

These gaps are currently filled by European imports. Advanced timber products such as cross laminated timber, wood-fibre insulation, and hybrid structural panelised systems are particularly suited to high performance outcomes. Scotland’s ability to rebuild a better country with already abundant human and renewable resources is tragically under-utilised.”

Increasing demand for homes that set the bar high for aesthetic appearance as well as energy, sustainability factors and innovation, has seen the custom-build market share grow to around 15 per cent of the total housing market in Scotland, while the dominant 85 per cent is volume-built mainstream housing developments – a situation which Sutherland believes is unique to the UK. In Austria, for example, these statistics are reversed, with 85 per cent being non-speculative custom delivered development.

“Greater awareness inspires a desire for increased standards and better outcomes across the industry, from architects, builders and tradespeople to suppliers, planners, and customers,” says Sutherland. 

“The white box syndrome particularly prevalent in the 1990s – and still the default in some areas – has been overtaken by more considered and more skilfully executed, homes and places. But what is perhaps less understood and appreciated is the profound advances in terms of these homes’ technical, energy and carbon performance. Many of the new breed of homes now integrated into our Highland landscapes are world-beating in respect to progressive net-zero carbon housing.”

For Sutherland, the next stage is to take this mainstream and attract investors who are inspired by what the digitally engaged design for assembly-built environment sector is doing – and a vital component in our bio economic future, which aims to drive both sustainable development and the principles of the circular economy. “Great homes and inspiring places change lives – they can also help save the planet by contributing to the health of the biosphere.”

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Innovation delivers net zero carbon homes

In 2014 MAKAR completed four homes at Flodderty, near Strathpeffer, for the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust. The homes consisted of two semi-detached blocks of three bedroomed homes, built using MAKAR’s offsite manufactured low impact sustainable n-SIP closed panels system. 

HeraldScotland:

To benchmark the environmental impact of the development a lifecycle assessment was implemented. Working with researchers at the University of East Anglia, with funding from the TSB Innovation Voucher Scheme, a study of the carbon footprint of the development was undertaken. The carbon footprint included embodied carbon and carbon sequestered in the homes. 

Working collaboratively throughout the build process a comprehensive body of data was collated that formed the basis of this embodied carbon study. Main findings showed the MAKAR homes at Fodderty were found to have a total embodied carbon of 26.5tCO2e per home. This was lower than comparable studies which suggested the embodied carbon of a new home to be approximately 35 – 50 tCO2e. 

The development at Fodderty was found to have an embodied carbon of 309kgCO2e m2 and 89 per cent of carbon associated with the development construction was derived from the materials used. Interestingly the 309 kg Co2 / SqM total embodied carbon is almost at the original RIBA Climate Challenge 2030 target of 300 kg Co2 – which has since been watered down as it was deemed unachievable! 

According to MAKAR’s Neil Sutherland, nowadays it is possible to deliver carbon-negative energy positive homes – homes remove carbon from the biosphere while generating more energy than 
they use.

The Carbon Conundrum
House building involves embodied carbon and operational carbon. The former, referred to usefully as ‘up-front carbon’ refers to the carbon dioxide (CO2) which is released during the sourcing, manufacture, and transport of materials: operational carbon refers to the level of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses released during the life of the building, for example through heating, lighting, and maintenance. 

Net zero carbon is about balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal – or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether from sequestrated carbon locked up for at least seven generations in timber-rich homes.

MAKAR delivers net zero carbon homes with timber-based systems and off-site construction. No alternative construction methods can meet this net zero carbon requirement.

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The Difference between Net Zero Carbon and Passivhaus

While both terms describe buildings that achieve high standards of carbon and energy efficiency, they are different concepts.

In theory, a net zero carbon home is one with zero carbon emissions on delivery – achieved by balancing carbon emissions during execution with sequestrated stored carbon in the form of locally sourced timber – a form of carbon offsetting. 

HeraldScotland:

 

Passivhaus buildings are built to an exacting standard according to the principles developed by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. However, rather than embodied or ‘up-front’ carbon, they are concerned mainly with restricting operational energy consumption to a benchmark amount.

It is therefore possible to build a certified Passivhaus building constructed from concrete, steel, and plastic, with a significant carbon footprint provided maintaining comfort requires reduced energy use. 

Combining the two concepts is clearly a winning formula. This would employ exacting quality standards to address up-front carbon, together with minimal longer term operational carbon emissions. This is exactly what MAKAR has been innovating and is continuing to deliver to the current housing market.

The challenge and opportunity post-COP27 is mainstreaming this at scale across Scotland and beyond.

makar.co.uk