Case Study

Design in business | Cygnum Timber Frame Ltd.

The company

Since 1997 Cygnum Timber Frame Ltd. has been engineering, designing, manufacturing and assembling timber frames comprising of all the elements of a building structure: internal and external walls, mid-floors and roof structures.

In 2005, the company opened a state-of-art manufacturing facility with a modern production line in Macroom, Co. Cork. Design and manufacturing is primarily undertaken in Ireland where they currently employ approximately 50 workers across multiple departments. Cygnum’s clients include developers and housing associations building volume housing schemes; large contractors with public building projects; architects and self-builders. Their annual sales amount to about €13 million with 75% of this being exports to the UK.

Cygnum uses specialised internal design skills that are considered central to the company’s operations. For, John Desmond, CEO of Cygnum, it is like designing a ‘three-dimensional jigsaw’ in which all elements have to fit perfectly.

Design activity in Ireland

Each project starts when Cygnum’s design team receive architectural drawings from a client’s architect. The building blueprints are then redrawn to check for any anomalies and subsequently every part of the building’s structure – walls, mid-floors and roof is designed and engineered. There can be thousands of elements which need to be manufactured and a production design is created for every one of them. This information is then sent to the factory floor for production and completed elements are delivered to site along with instructions for assembly. Design and engineering is therefore the most challenging part of the process and essential for the smooth running of the operation.

The company constantly invests in its design capacity and currently has 15 staff members consisting of qualified architecture technicians and design engineers who make up the design unit. The design unit is responsible for almost all of the design work although the company also cooperates with the external design engineers as part of the process. The annual spending on design amounts to around €600,000 and is continually increasing.

Design is key to Cygnum’s strategy because all business activities depend on design capacity. New designers are regularly employed however the company find the most challenging issue in its design activity is recruiting designers with the right skills. Manufacturing is relatively easy to manage and increasing the production capacity does not pose problems as much as a need for extensive training in design to meet the company’s specific requirements. It was reported that graduates with the appropriate skills are quite scarce in Ireland and tend to choose to work in other sectors, usually based in larger urban centres. It is felt that the solution to this problem could be to introduce apprenticeship schemes, increase promotion from the sector and offer more design courses in universities.

Cygnum’s design unit ensures not only the precision and cost effectiveness of its timber frames, but also the superior levels of energy efficiency. Experience, research and technology have allowed the company to manufacture the panels from sustainable and natural materials which comply with the highest environmental standards. In 2013 Cygnum became the first Irish company, and one of only two in the UK and Ireland, to have a certified Passivehaus system. Passive Houses are extremely well insulated and designed to be substantially heated from passive gains such as the sun’s heat. These houses require up to 90% less energy for heating compared to a conventional house. Many public buildings built with Cygnum’s timber frames also meet the BREEAM low carbon standards (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology).

Design in focus

Cygnum has been involved in many very successful projects including the Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia (UEA). In 2013, the company were approached by Architype Architects with the challenge of emphasizing the UEA’s architectural legacy and commitment to environmentally friendly best building practice through the new building. Since completion, it is claimed to be one of the UK’s greenest buildings. In six months the design team designed a timber frame which received Passivhaus certification and a ‘BREEAM Outstanding’ rating. The embodied carbon in the UEA’s Enterprise Centre is between 1/5 and 1/4 of the established best-practice benchmark for university buildings which means there will be a huge saving of CO2 over the 100-year lifetime of the building. Additionally, the timber for the timber frame structure was locally sourced from Corsican Pine grown in neighbouring Thetford Forest and the external walls are clad with wheaten straw. The project, which was worth approximately €1.8 million to Cygnum, is the UEA’s showcase for the low carbon revolution in building.