Net zero factories: The future of Scottish house building

Net zero factories: The future of Scottish house building

One of the biggest challenges facing the Scottish house building industry is how to meet the needs of a growing population sustainably. It is estimated that we’ll need to build 100,000 new homes in Scotland over the next decade to meet current housing requirements, but with the construction sector accounting for 47% of the UK’s carbon emissions, we need a solution.

If the sector is serious about playing its part, it must accelerate the adoption of new sustainable ways of working and develop new building methods. Whilst other industries are evolving at pace, and adopting new, novel technologies in the race to net zero, the construction industry is moving slowly.

However, one solution is to drive the development of more novel approaches to sustainable timber based modular housing which allows for greater efficiency in the use of materials.

It is this vision which led NorFrame to begin building a new net zero Timber Engineering factory in Foveran, Aberdeenshire. The new site is situated adjacent to an anaerobic digestion facility, allowing for the factory to be powered by 100% renewable energy through an innovative heat capture system.

From waste to power

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a process in which bacteria breaks down organic matter, like plant and food waste. During the AD process, plant silage is fermented for six months before being fed into the plant. This process creates heat which is then captured, and redirected to heat the entire factory and office space. Biogas is also produced which is collected to power the manufacturing processes.

Additionally, any waste from the digestion process is then repurposed and used as a fertiliser for next year’s crop. It is a fully organic, closed fuel cycle and has to potential to make a significant contribution to Scotland’s net zero ambitions.

The new £4m facility will span 31,000 sq ft, will produce 20 timber kits per week, and have the capability to meet demand from Scotland’s private and public sectors. It will be constructed to maximise energy efficiency, whilst all timber waste will be minimised and a circular economy approach is being used to ensure that any residual waste is utilised or recycled. This includes the collection and utilisation of rainwater.

Work on the site is well underway and is expected to be finished in the Spring of 2023.

Built-in sustainability

The design of the factory will see many of its products achieve PassivHaus standards where required, meaning its modular timber kits will meet rigorous energy efficiency standards. Backed with over 30 years of international evidence, Passivhaus buildings are subject to rigorous testing criteria to ensure they can provide a high level of occupant comfort using very little energy for heating and cooling.

By maximising energy efficiency, developers can reduce the need for space heating in buildings, massively cutting carbon emissions.

Regulation is key

The Scottish Government also has its own part to play and has committed to taking a leading role. In June this year, Holyrood announced new measures aimed at slashing the carbon emissions of all new-build homes by just under a third (32%). The new energy standards also apply to newly built non-domestic buildings and form plans to reduce emissions across Scotland’s building stock by more than two thirds by 2030.

Reducing energy demand, including improved fabric insulation in new homes to reduce heating needs, is a key obstacle which must be overcome if we are to meet this target. House builders are now also required to streamline the connection of low-carbon heating solutions.

However, developers must look beyond the buildings and examine their own manufacturing processes and technologies. By implementing low-carbon and renewable developments such as wind and solar, or other novel technologies like anaerobic digestion, they can make a real, tangible impact on Scotland’s net zero targets.

Scottish company creating UK first 100% renewables powered timber kit factory

  • Powered by adjacent Anaerobic Digestion plant and ingenious heat capture idea
  • Fully organic closed fuel cycle
  • 11 new green jobs created and 14 safeguarded
  • Carbon reduction in the manufacture of timber frame for social housing, self-builds and Scottish Schools
  • Backed by Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Government 

Industry has been transformed time and again by great Scottish innovation, fuelled by limitless imagination and exceptional creativity. It is this same passion for innovation that drove a timber frame specialist in Foveran, Aberdeenshire to design and build a factory that will be powered exclusively by renewable energy thanks to an ingenious heat capturing design.

The first of its kind in the UK, NorFrame’s factory will manufacture timber kit frames for homes, schools and commercial buildings using power generated from an on-site Anaerobic Digestion plant fuelled by silage from a neighbouring farm – eliminating the need for fossil fuels to heat or power facility and its processes.

Spanning 31,000 sq ft with a completion date of Spring 2023, the £4m factory will initially create 11 new jobs and safeguard a further 14 in a rural area, produce 20 timber kits per week, and have the capability to meet demand from Scotland’s private and public sectors.

Gregor Davidson, of NorFrame said: “Our goal was to solve a carbon footprint problem that would provide 100% assurance that a timber manufacturing process can be clean, green, and cost effective.

“The idea of combining the neighbouring Anaerobic Digestion plant and our own homegrown plant silage from a farm four miles away, with a two-zone heat capturing design came after months of testing and reworking our plans. It was a eureka moment. It means that we take plant silage, ferment it for 6 months and then feed it into the Anaerobic Digestion Plant which will power the factory. During that process, heat is created. Our idea is to capture that heat – which would have otherwise gone to waste – and redirect it to heat the entire factory and office space. And any waste from the digestion process, is then used as fertiliser for next year’s crop. It is a fully organic, closed fuel cycle and we know it will make a significant contribution to Scotland’s net zero ambitions.”

The neighbouring Anaerobic Digestor has been operational since 2014 and relies on feed in tariff (FiT) for viability. Its current FiT agreement ends in 13 years’ time which meant it needed a lifeline to avoid being rendered redundant. NorFrame’s factory will use up to 60% of the plant’s renewable electricity, assuring the plant’s future.

In June 2022, the Scottish Government announced new measures to slash carbon emissions of all new-build homes by a third (32%). The new energy standards also apply to newly built non-domestic buildings and form plans to reduce emissions across Scotland’s building stock by more than two thirds by 2030.

Scottish Enterprise is providing NorFrame with £750,000 of financial support from the Low Carbon Manufacturing Challenge Fund. This is the first grant awarded through the fund.

Philip Edwards of NorFrame added: “Our clients have a variety of different thermal requirements depending on their own projects. Our new facility will allow us to cater for different solutions and showcase the products within our timber frame package.”

In its submission, NorFrame detailed how the design will see many of its products achieve PassivHaus standards in thermal performance, air tightness and detailing, meaning its timber kits will meet rigorous energy efficient standards, therefore reducing the need for space heating in any building.

The Low Carbon Manufacturing Challenge Fund is a competitive mechanism which was created to support innovation in low carbon technology, processes and innovation. It is a key action from Making Scotland’s Future, a partnership between government, public agencies, industry and academia who are taking forward a programme of activity designed to secure a strong, sustainable future for Scotland’s manufacturing sector.

Rhona Allison, Managing Director of Business Growth at Scottish Enterprise, said: “Scotland’s manufacturers have a key role to play in helping the country meet its net zero ambitions. By encouraging the adoption and development of low carbon products, services, technologies and processes, through initiatives such as the Low Carbon Manufacturing Challenge Fund, we can help them on that road.

“Identifying, combining, and harnessing the carbon-reducing technologies at its fingertips will see NorFrame take a truly circular approach to timber kit manufacturing that eliminates any use of fossil fuels. It’s exactly the kind of innovative thinking that the Fund was designed to stimulate and demonstrates to other manufacturers the benefits of placing decarbonisation at the heart of their businesses.”

Enterprise Minister Ivan McKee said: “We are fully committed to reaching net zero by 2045 and developments such as NorFrame will play an important role to reach our goal.

“It’s great to see that new jobs will be created through this development. We are further supporting manufacturers’ innovation ambitions through the Low Carbon Manufacturing Challenge Fund, whilst reducing emissions across Scotland as we tackle the global climate emergency.”

NorFrame’s certified timber comes from forests managed to strict environmental, social and economic standards under the Forrest Stewardship Council UK (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).