I met a man recently, Mr Robin Howell, who introduced himself as “the man who built using Argos catalogues” – a bit weird, perhaps! What he did was build a visitor centre at the Redbrick Project near Glastonbury using outdated Argos catalogues for the walls. Take at look at the website to get some idea of what the whole project is about – www.redbrickbuilding.org.uk. – and how he used school children (not in a Dickensian way, you understand!) to glue together Argos catalogues and lay them to form walls.

Essentially what he did was scrounge materials (and labour) to build this visitor centre and came up with the idea of using Argos catalogues as infill to what was basically an on-site manufactured SIP.

Say what you like about the building, and I guess there is a lot that could be said, it worked and it cost less than £60 per square metre to build. No missing zero’s – it was £60 per sq m.

Mr Howell is an interesting man with a fascinating story and what it did was make me think about construction systems. Most of us spend a good deal of time agonising over the best construction method – timber frame or SIPS, how about ICF, is masonry still OK, which is the cheapest, which is the most thermally efficient, which is the best? Walls are obviously important. They do a lot of work in keeping the weather out, the heat in and holding up the roof. To say nothing of providing the sub-strata for decoration, somewhere to hang a picture, to fix kitchen units, curtain rails or whatever. But does it really matter?

I have just finished a project building a house that, in energy terms, would get well under Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 (about 25% better than current building regulations) using conventional masonry cavity walls. Eighteen months ago, when the project started, building to that level of thermal efficiency was a tricky idea – much easier to achieve with SIPS or some other highly insulated build system – but, with a lot of thought and more attention to detail, we got a U-value of 0.2W/m2 and an air-tightness of 3.05m3/hr/m2 and an efficient build.

SIPS manufacturers commonly get U-values down to 0.15W/m2 and high levels of air tightness, as do timber frame manufacturers and ICF builders – as do Argos catalogue builders. I don’t know what the U-value of an Argos catalogue wall is or, in truth, how to calculate it but I would not mind betting it is pretty good. And it will provide more thermal mass than conventional insulation (is there an academic paper here on which catalogue gives the best thermal performance – Argos, Yellow Pages, Next, Grattan, remaindered self-building bibles?).

The reality is that all the construction systems do, by-and-large, the same thing. They all comply with regulation as a minimum, all are cost comparable and all are far better than they were even 5 years ago – in terms of thermal efficiency at least.

When the idea of achieving zero carbon homes by 2016 was first mooted we all threw our hands up in horror. This was unachievable, ruinously expensive and would be the death of the home-building industry. It is in fact the financial industry that is killing the home-building industry and we have move from Code Level 1 to Code Level 3 without really noticing it. We move to Level 4 next year and it is likely that, as every problem provides an opportunity, we won’t really notice that either. Ultimately, we don’t do enough detailed research to make a truly informed decision and the construction system we choose is based on personal preference, the latest, brightest idea and the quality of the salesperson we meet. What Mr Howell taught me was that that is probably the way it should be.

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