Natural selection – profile of Neil May

Clay Technology magazine
16 Apr 2010
Neil May (right) discusses the merits of natural materials with the Prince of Wales

The UK construction industry has come to a halt, and it has nothing to do with the economy, argues Neil May, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Natural Building Technologies, UK. He says a lack of investment and training has allowed the sector to stagnate, but natural materials may hold the key to a brighter future. Gary Price reports

On a blisteringly hot night in Bihar, India, a film crew from the UK were trying to sleep in a Government building on the edge of a tribal slum. Neil May remembers the night well, because it would later inspire him to set up the firm Natural Building Technologies (NBT).

‘We were making a film on the coal industry in India and our crew was staying in a building made of concrete,’ explains May. ‘In the day, the temperature would reach 45ºC and the building absorbed that heat. At night the mattresses were too hot to lie on so we had to pour buckets of cold water on them. It would be the middle of the night and steam would be rising from our beds!’ But when he and the rest of the crew visited the slums during the day, they found that the earth buildings were cool, creating a better environment for the people living there. ‘That area of Bihar was completely contaminated by the manufacturing industries and I thought, “why have we developed materials which are so inappropriate and polluting”’, he says. This was the first step in May’s journey to setting up his own building company and becoming a champion for natural materials, applying the properties of fired and unfired clays as well as wood fibres. But the road to success was a difficult one.

After studying modern history at Oxford University in the UK and Sociology at Delhi University in India, May embarked on a career as an academic and filmmaker, but came back to England in 1988 having decided to make a living as an organic farmer. ‘I wanted to do something more tactile’, he explains, ‘and this was something of an antidote to years spent in academia.’

But May faced some difficulties. For a start he could not afford any land and so became a building labourer to make some money. ‘A friend of mine was fitting some windows and asked if I could help. I said yes, and ended up working with him for four years. It was complete chance. I never expected or intended to do anything in the construction sector. But after about four years I started putting it together with my other interests, such as the environment, ecology and health and thought “there is something really interesting here”.

‘I worked onsite for 11 years and discovered that there are certain ways that we relate to the environment. One of those ways is through our hands,’ he continues. ‘Natural materials have a different quality and are much more forgiving and more interesting for the contractor. Modern materials, particularly synthetics, can damage buildings by not allowing them to breathe.’

Labour of love
Using this experience, and having learned a few trades, including plastering, basic carpentry, roofing and brickwork, May set up NBT in 1999 in Oakely, UK.‘For about five years I thought it wasn’t going to happen, but I was always an optimist’, he says. ‘It helped that I was slightly naive about what it would take to get the company up and running because if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t. It takes a huge dose of will power to be an entrepreneur.’

May borrowed money from family and friends and put his house into the business, before receiving funding from venture capitalists and The Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit company set up by the UK Government to support low carbon technology.

In 2007, things started to look up for the firm.‘The mainstream media started to take the issue of global warming seriously and we saw a change in attitudes’, he says. ‘It is a cultural issue. We had the same ideas and products in 2004 but we were talking to people who had no interest in the environment or sustainability. They thought we were environmental loonies. I thought I could change the construction sector through will power alone, but it doesn’t work like that.’

Performance matters
May is quick to point out that natural materials are not a ‘green fad’. In fact, he sees the environmental aspect as a secondary issue.‘We don’t sell our products based on eco-credentials but on performance,’ he explains. ‘Natural materials are excellent for creating buildings with low heat loss, that are breathable and have good acoustic properties.’

It is because of this, and the introduction of Government standards supporting sustainable construction (the Code for Sustainable Homes), that the company has continued to expand, despite the global recession.

One of the company’s most successful products, ThermoPlan Fired clay blocks, was specified for use within The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment’s Natural House, which is currently under construction at BRE’s Innovation Park in Watford, UK. The honeycomb clay building blocks are said to use 50% less energy to make compared to a similar performance concrete block system, generating about 50% less CO2/m2 of walling. ‘In a masonry construction this can mean a considerable saving in life time emissions,’ explains May. ‘More importantly it is a quick and easy system to build, without complex cavities, difficult thermal bridging issues or membranes.

‘About 50% of German homes are made this way and the technology is spreading to other areas of Europe’, says May. ‘We have built developments of 170 flats, multiple low rise social housing, stone clad country cottages and many schools and community centres.’

Building the Bavarian way
May believes that, when it comes to quality construction, Germany is leading the way. ‘The UK is 10-20 years behind and we are not catching up. Unless we start doing things in a logical way and getting the principles of low-energy, high-performance buildings right soon, we will fall even further behind.’So where are we going wrong? May argues that the UK is still following the same building methods of poor quality 20th century buildings, and that long-term investment and development is needed.

‘There is no independent, properly funded knowledge base in the UK,’ he says. ‘We haven’t monitored our building methods or the materials used for 30 years. No one knows if our building regulations work and we haven’t invested in training and skills.

‘The skills of a builder, plasterer or carpenter are seriously undervalued in this country’, continues May. ‘But this is a really important part of our society. It is not all about pop music and reality television shows – this has a material reality and a great value. The status of a master builder in Germany is very high, but in the UK the status of any builder is perceived as being low.’

There are also major problems with the UK’s legislative programmes that focus on sustainability, stresses May. ‘It is not through a lack of good intention, but policies regarding sustainability and climate change have all been rushed because everyone is talking about it without being able to understand it. That is a difficult situation to be in and I spend a lot of my time in Government advisory groups pleading for organisations to take their time before making a new “sustainable” or “green” policy.’

For example, May argues that the BRE’s Green Guide to Specification, which assesses the environmental impact of building materials, has had ‘a negative influence on the understanding of natural materials’. The guide sets out data as an A+ to E ranking system, where A+ represents the best environmental performance and E the worst.

‘Conventional materials almost always ended up getting A+ while natural materials have largely been ignored,’ says May. ‘The BRE is not a publicly owned independent body [the organisation was privatised in 1997] and the research is largely sponsored by industry. You get the results you pay for.’

Plea for sanity
May founded the Good Homes Alliance in 2007 to help address this problem by bringing together a group of housing developers, building professionals and other industry supporters. The aim, May says, is to close the gap between aspiration and reality by showing how to build and monitor good homes, which are sustainable in the broadest sense.

He also sits on a number of other advisory bodies, including the Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon Hub. As a result, he has taken a less hands-on role within NBT to dedicate more time to these groups, where he believes he can have a significant influence on the future of the UK’s construction industry.

‘Our plea is to get clarity and sanity into the process of creating truly sustainable homes,’ he explains. ‘The danger is that [the criteria for measuring sustainability] becomes a tick box process that does not deliver anything in reality. It is not a five minute job, we need to change the
entire culture of our industry, including monitoring, training, looking at supply chain relationships, how we deliver buildings onsite, and giving ourselves time to do that and get that learning embedded in the industry.’

He adds, ‘I want the construction industry in this country to move forward and it will not happen with dramatic policies and sound bites for the press’.

As the tortoise once said to the hare, ‘it is slow and steady that wins the race’.

Further information: Natural Building Technologies