Eco-homes pioneer of the Century

Emigrant Gerry McCaughey came home in 1990 to become one of Ireland’s most successful green builders, writes John Reynolds. Published on 30 September, 2007. 

Although he netted €31m for his 32 per cent stake in the timber frame company when Brendan Murtagh, founder of housebuilder Kingspan, paid €98m for it in 2005, McCaughey hasn’t splashed out on a private jet.

Instead, we board a gas-guzzling Airbus to Heathrow, on our way to visit Kingspan Century’s pioneering carbon neutral eco-home in the world-renowned Building Research Establishment in Watford on the outskirts of London.

The plane will spew out more than 1.5 times the average Irish person’s annual carbon emissions — about 23 tonnes of greenhouse gases in total for our return trip. As you might expect of someone who has clocked up so many air miles, McCaughey has a frequent flyer card. Not that it’ll be any consolation to the polar bears in the melting Arctic.

After protests against the aviation industry reached a peak last month at Heathrow, the construction industry on both sides of the Irish Sea has come in for its share of environmental scrutiny.

Green ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan have announced new rules for new Irish homes to cut their carbon emissions by 40 per cent from next year. In Britain, Gordon Brown says that all new homes built from 2016 onwards will have to be carbon neutral.

As we buckle up, McCaughey and his PR man compare notes on their babies’ feeding times. Cynics might suggest that a new baby has prompted an interest in the future of the planet. A former candidate for the Progressive Democrats, however, the founder of Century Homes is an avid follower of current affairs. His interest in environmental matters is a long-held one and the first zero carbon house in Britain is just one of several green investments.

As well as shares in wind energy giant Airtricity, he has a 20 per cent stake in forestry software firm Treemetrics and is backing California-based Robild, which hopes to automate the production of timber frames. Around 90 per cent of new homes in the US are timber-framed, so the venture could be a moneyspinner.

“I’m also looking at something related to timber frames in Canada and a small apartment development, in New York, which would be the first off-site constructed timber frame development there,” he adds. He has also made property and land purchases in Ireland and abroad.

After a short drive up the motorway from Heathrow, we step through the front door of the two-bedroom eco-house, which sits across from another energy efficient (although not zero carbon) house. There’s also a super-modern school building here with a wind turbine on its roof.

Front and side of Century Homes' 'light house' eco-home  40 square metres of solar panels cover the roof of Century Homes' eco-home  Front view of Century Homes' 'light house' eco-home

McCaughey shows me around the bright, modern house. The bedrooms are on the ground floor, while the living room and kitchen/diner are upstairs, with a study (which could be a third bedroom if desired) on a raised mezzanine floor above.

The warm autumn sun is streaming into the living room through triple glazed windows, which maximise the natural light in the house. The sun is also shining on 40 square metres of solar panels on the sloping roof and producing 12 kilowatts according to the house’s energy meter.

That’s enough to run one of the home’s main appliances (a shower or cooker), and most of the usual electronics or gadgets you find in the modern home, including the widescreen TV in the living area.

“On a warm sunny day, the solar panels will generate more energy than would be used in the house,” McCaughey says.

Complemented by a woodchip boiler and solar water heater, the solar panels can also power a heat exchange, which cools or heats fresh air from outside to the desired temperature. The house is airtight and its timber frame is packed with insulation, meaning there are no draughts.

The air circulated by the heat exchange can be filtered for asthma or hayfever sufferers. Having the bedrooms downstairs means they are naturally cool, while any heat will rise to keep the living area warm and cosy.

The house not only conserves heat and energy, but water as well. A rainwater sump underneath collects water that can be used in the washing machine, for example. Grey water, from the dishwasher for example, is used for flushing toilets. “Every house in Ireland could have this tomorrow. It’s not rocket science,” says McCaughey.

There is a premium cost for all this technology, but it’s perhaps not as high as you might think. “As these houses become more commercially viable, costs will come down, so that in the coming years, there should be no significant difference in cost,” he says.

The current build cost of a traditional three-bedroom semi-detached house is currently €80,000-€100,000, whereas for one of these eco-homes it’s €120,000-€140,000.

The environmental benefits are significant. Timber-framed homes alone reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7.5 tonnes per year, according to a study carried out by the University of Ulster for the British government. The added technology adds to those reductions, making the eco-house zero carbon and super-efficient compared to an ordinary concrete house.

Becoming a green construction pioneer wasn’t always on the cards for Monaghan-born McCaughey. After being expelled from secondary school in Monaghan for being disruptive, he studied accountancy in Dundalk.

The idea of building timber frame homes took hold later during a marketing project of his Commerce degree at UCD. The idea was put on the backburner when he graduated in 1985 — unemployment was running at 19 per cent — so he spent five years looking for work in California.

After his father challenged him to come back home, Century Homes took off in 1990, with his father, brother Gary, technical director Jim McBride and marketing director Paul McDonald all working in the business.

Thanks to a bullish attitude during the early days of the Celtic Tiger, the firm’s turnover was about €80m in 2005. Today it operates in Ireland and Britain, and is the largest timber frame manufacturer in Europe, employing 460 people with plants in Dungarvan, Monaghan, Longford, Cardiff and Newcastle.

“My heart is in the timber frame business and always will be. The fact that the concrete industry has to run adverts to stop us building half of all new houses in Ireland is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had. In Scotland, 70 per cent of all new homes are timber frame, while that figure is 90 per cent in the US and Canada,” he says.

As the construction boom slows down, McCaughey is adamant that the government needs to step in. “The stamp duty problem has moved up the chain from first time buyers, so Brian Cowen needs to step in to avoid serious problems next year,” he argues.

Nonetheless, Kingspan Century is eyeing plenty of potential for growth in Britain. The eco-house is a response to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “carbon challenge,” which showcases how housebuilders can help to tackle climate change.

As we prepare to travel back to Heathrow for our flight home, a British TV news crew are filming a report on the eco-house. Whatever McCaughey learned from his marketing project at UCD, clearly it is still paying off.

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