From the land of chocolate and cheese comes another remarkable product – a slot-together modular building system, not unlike Lego, called Steko. Marcus Fairs went to see the first UK project to use the blocks – a cliff-top home in Cornwall
Building a house atop a cliff in deepest Cornwall was never going to be an average job for a fashionable London architect. Besides the spectacular sea views, the steeply sloping site and the fact that the area is out of range of mobile phones, architect de Rijke Marsh Morgan (DRMM) decided to employ a construction method never before used in this country.

The £80,000 house at Downderry in south Cornwall is being built using Steko – a modular building system much like Lego. The system, based on a range of recycled timber blocks that simply slot together, is fairly commonly used for housing in its native Switzerland. But it is not commercially available here; DRMM discovered the blocks at a trade show and promptly bought the entire display from the stand organiser.

"We were intrigued by the possibilities of the blocks – their speed and precision," says Michael Spooner, designer at DRMM. "It allows very clean, simple operations on site and the blocks are very lightweight and manageable. There's also very little waste and it should be more eco-friendly."

Steko blocks are made of softwood offcuts from tongue-and-groove flooring. The standard module measures 160 × 640 × 320 or 240 mm and is hollow. A complete range of modules is available including baseplates, lintels, window linings and corners. However, DRMM only managed to acquire a limited range of components, so they had to improvise the rest on site.

The 70 m2 Cornish house is only being half-built of Steko – the upper floor will feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls. But the product can be used to build structures several storeys high. "It is extremely quick. The first floor went up in a weekend," says Spooner. "It's quite a precisely machined system – but not quite as precise as I had imagined. It is impressive if you're happy to work to a grid system – very crisp, orthogonal construction." DRMM's scheme, however, featured non-orthogonal corners that called for even more on-site adaptation. Fortunately, the softwood blocks can be modified simply by sawing them up.

The adaptability of the system suits the project, says Spooner: "The house does not have full set of construction drawings so it is being resolved as it goes along, which is exciting. It means we're on the telephone a lot to the builder."