Building for a Sustainable Future; PROFILE in 1978 Matt Nichols Left School at the Age of 16. Today He Handles Sales for a Company with a Pounds 3 Billion Turnover as Ross Reyburn Discovers
Byline: Ross Reyburn
It may sound a little hard to believe but on the outskirts of the Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa you can view a plasterboard wall that can heat and cool a room.
The Micronal PCM Smartboard can be viewed at the pounds 3.2 million Wolseley Sustainable Building Center, which opened in April at the national headquarters of Wolseley UK, supplier of the widest range of construction products and materials available in the UK.
"This is the exhibit at the centre that has attracted the most interest," says Matt Nichols, Wolseley UK's sales director.
"It is contains microscopically small wax polymer spheres that will absorb heat into the plasterboard and when the temperature drops down, the reverse process takes place.
"We have been aware of the product for the past 18 months. If you imagine the impact of that - you have a non-powered, non-carbon product that essentially reduces the need for air-conditioning."
Produced by the German company BASF, the smartboard costs around five times as much as conventional plasterboard but the payback comes in future savings.
This wonderwall may sound like some kind of "green" conjuring trick in the gimmick mould that will disappear into obscurity after a year or so but Nichols argues persuasively the center is no esoteric glimpse into a green future.
"The centre is unique," he says. "It is a national showcase of all the sustainable materials we have identified as commercially viable and commercially available for any sustainable construction project.
"What it isn't, which there are elsewhere, is a domestic show home with a million-and-one clever gadgets where people say 'Wow!' But when you question if they are available, some of them aren't."
The attractive building, which adopts the American spelling of "center" for copyright reasons is neatly laid out and looks deceptively sparse until the 170 sustainable products are pointed out. A room that lights up when you walk into it and taps that pour water automatically when you place your hands under them take you into a world most people are unaware exists.
You can find ground source heat pumps demonstrated there also and Nichols rates the centre as an important showcase for geothermal systems.
"After the plasterboard, the other thing people come wanting to understand more about is geothermal technology whether it is ground or air source.
"People have an awareness of geothermal systems but they don't understand what is involved.
I don't want people running away with the impression it is geothermal or nothing.
What we should be talking about is renewable energies per se, of which geothermal is an important system.
"All new build should have if possible new energy sources. The most questionable one in our view is wind turbines - the idea you can put a turbine on the side of your house is not practical - they are not efficient enough.
"B&Q had a whole lot of publicity when they sold something like 1,500 wind turbines.
But then something like 20 per cent of them were returned damaged and a similar number were returned because people didn't realize they had to have planning permission to put wind turbines on the side of a house."
Why have they created the centre?
"There are a number of political drivers, such as the code for sustainable homes for example, that are pushing major housing developers and others down that route.
"The government ought to be able to control public sector buildings, schools, because that is public spend. When you speak to people, everybody knows they need to improve the sustainability content of a building.
"What they don't know is what currently exists, what the commercial viability of it is and what is the best mix of products. What you have is different technologies but they don't always complement each other. …