Building materials supplier Wolseley has given a big leg-up to m&e contractors seeking to go renewable by creating a demo centre that includes a vast array of green products. Tracy Edwards pays a visit

The sustainability agenda has unleashed a perplexing array of products and systems onto the market during the past few years. Undoubtedly, it’s no use sticking to what you know if what you know is constantly evolving.

But do those who are specifying these rapidly developing products really have the time – or the inclination – to visit dozens of manufacturers to work out which are going to help them gain green wings?

Building materials distributor Wolseley has developed a model that goes some way to alleviating contractors’ problems. The supplier has come up with the idea of marketing its products by building a 2070 m2 showroom out of them. Customers who head to Leamington Spa in Warwickshire will be testing more than the waters. Buyers get the luxury of enjoying a one-stop shop with a vast product range.

Built at a cost of £3.2m, the UK’s first commercial Sustainable Building Center is home to storyboards, general sale information and manufacturers’ details.

It boasts detailed technical information on how to install and operate all of its products, including miniature video screens that offer product data and short videos of the installations.

Wolseley spent three years validating manufacturers’ data, putting in place supply agreements and producing a 150-page catalogue alongside its comprehensive website.

But as Scottish author and reformer Samuel Smiles once said, practical wisdom is only to be learned in the school of experience, and the real selling point here is that Wolseley’s centre has been made using many of its own 7000-strong range of eco-products.

This equipment is accessible within the very fabric of the building, as well as in display galleries, so buyers can interact with the technologies, observe them in action and learn how to fit them.

Systems and structures are left exposed, with cutaways revealing the workings of key installations, such as the integral underfloor heating system.

When Wolseley gave ECD Architects the original brief, the client was insistent that the centre should not look like an industrial or commercial building. As you enter into the airy main entrance hall, it’s evident that ECD has hit the mark.

A bright, glazed walkway separates the lightweight structure on the left, which houses offices, a dedicated lecture theatre and a cafe, from a more solid-looking building on the right, which contains the main product display areas.

From the outside, the centre may look like a bizarre, though somewhat stylish, mishmash of a building, but the message is clear: sustainable construction is not as restrictive as you might think. In fact, it offers up a diverse range of possibilities.

A visit to the centre involves a guided tour and the opportunity for buyers to explore on their own. On arrival, customers are provided with a personal identification number (PIN). By using this in conjunction with the various touch-screen units dotted around the centre, visitors can request more detailed installation and operational information, which is emailed to them at a later date.

Because of the project’s complexities, a distinct approach to subcontracting certain packages was adopted. National Electric provided power cabling and basic lighting, and Stratton won a separate contract for the mechanical side.

Main contractor Rok SOL fitted a large number of the building’s green m&e systems, including a range of systems that are either partially or wholly reliant on photovoltaics. A measurable energy management system shows visitors how technologies such as solar power and combined heat and power actually perform over time.

Bright future

Renewable energy generators have been installed, complete with displays that indicate how much power they are generating, and the total carbon savings. Solar panels, which were installed at the end of May, provide power for the centre’s roof lighting.

All in all, the project took just under a year to complete. The construction was bolstered by major use of prefabrication. Tim Pollard, head of sustainability at Wolseley and the driving force behind the project, explains: “The panels are machine-manufactured to exacting tolerances and can incorporate cast-in cable ducts, electrical boxes and service ports. They are supplied with floor, window, door and ventilation openings. Once installed, panels provide superior sound insulation.”

Lighting at the centre provides an excellent example of how innovative technologies can provide a more eco-friendly environment.

“Glidevale Sunscoops provide some of the internal lighting without using any energy by focusing sunlight through a lens and a highly reflective aluminium tube. The tube is coated with a high-performance silver film which provides 95% reflectivity,” explains Pollard.

Sustainable technologies aren’t always more expensive. looking at whole-life costs, an initial purchase price premium is often offset

Externally, Philips’ LED feature lighting includes the Luxeon LED Floodlighting system and Milewide street lighting, which integrate the latest CosmoPolis technology. CO2 emissions are reduced to a minimum.

CosmoPolis has been designated a Philips Green Flagship product, as energy savings significantly reduce CO2 emissions, as well as providing substantial savings in energy bills. System efficiency is higher, up from 30% to 70%, than traditional white-light sources.

If this isn’t enough to make most eco-focused developers green with envy, the building also employs no less than three fully functional heating sources: a biomass boiler, combi boiler and ground-source heat pump.

Distinct approach

It is no surprise that Wolseley’s vision has achieved a BREEAM ‘excellent’ rating. But surely a building that has earned more points than Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon called for a distinct approach when it came to the electrical and mechanical installations?

“As main contractor, we had to undertake a higher level of investigation into the products, due to their nature.

The material-ordering process was more involved, because of the longer lead-in periods,” says Rok SOL’s Brett Coley.

“Also, the site team got more involved with the design team than is usually the case,” he adds.

This seems to be the case on many levels. Services interact seamlessly with the very fabric of the building. The south wing consists of Hanson twin-wall panels, which were specified for the main galleries to exploit the thermal mass of the exposed material.

“This was used in conjunction with a secured natural ventilation cooling strategy to remove the need for energy-intensive air conditioning,” says Pollard.

The building’s status as the country’s first sustainability showcase didn’t faze its installers. Coley insists that Rok SOL, National Electric and Stratton treated the project like any other. There were, however, other factors which kept the teams on their toes.

“The Wolseley offices overlook the development, and this created a different level of pressure,” says Pollard. “But both the client and the design team were great to work with, and we believe the final product is unique.”

Understandably, many design-and-build contractors and consultants shy away from renewables and other sustainable technologies unless a client has specifically requested them, due to costs. Pollard insists those decisions are far from prudent.

“The criterion for inclusion at the centre was that products had to be available in commercial quantities today,” he says.

“Sustainable technologies aren’t always more expensive, and when looking at whole-life costs – in other words, the cost to buy, run and dispose of the product – an initial purchase price premium is often offset. Good examples are high-efficiency boilers and long-life light bulbs.”

The key is a greater level of communication with the client when pricing up the project, a trend which is becoming more prevalent as the green agenda progresses.

“Forward-thinking clients are also considering the costs and practicalities of mitigating the effects of climate change and resource depletion, which are accelerating fast,” adds Pollard.

Construction of the Sustainable Building Center has clearly been timed well, and the centre seems to have been well received. With the first round of visits booked up before the centre’s doors had even opened, it truly begs the question, why on earth has nobody thought of this before?

Eco-products in action