With a 40-year track record, the name Potton has become synonymous with the self-build market. One of the com-pany’s main audiences consists of ’empty-nesters’, people in the 55-plus age bracket whose children have left home and who want to build their dream home. For some that dream may have been 20 years or more in the making.

In reality, only 1% of customers completely self-build their homes. The rest rely on various aspects of the Potton package which includes everything from helping to source a plot, mortgage and planning permission, to supplying tradesmen for the whole project.

Potton produced its first timber frame kits in 1968, doing well out of government and local authority housing schemes. Margaret Thatcher burst the bubble when she ended council house contracts and the company had to look for other avenues of income, including 10 years of export to the Middle East.

It was one of the first companies to produce I-beams, although it never patented them, and in the 1980s it pioneered Volumetric, a pre-finished modular construction system which resulted in Potton building all but six of the 170-plus Travelodges in the UK.

Sales and marketing director Joe Martoccia said: “A number of housing associations and the government think off-site manufacture is the way forward, but Potton pulled out of it as in reality contractors did not want the full package and ultimately there was no money in it.”

The 1980s saw the birth of Tudor-style Heritage homes based on a post and beam system. Potton now offers four basic house design styles with literally hundreds of variations available in each to accommodate the individual lifestyle of clients. It is about to launch a new range Barn-style homes.

The company’s manufacturing plant is located on an eight-acre site where a new £1m sawmill with state-of-the-art cross-cutting and panel cutting machinery is due to be commissioned.

Quality control

Every single piece of timber and wood product delivered to the factory undergoes a stringent check before being allowed through the gates into the yard.

For, as Potton director and production controller Doug Bircham, said: “If you don’t do it and poor material gets into production it costs you dear.”

The new sawmill, due to be commissioned in August, will enable the company to ramp up production. Mr Bircham said: “We are doubling the size of our cutting capacity and have already doubled the size of our timber treatment which can handle 150m3 a day. Our timber is delivered on a just-in-time basis so we don’t store a lot – there is probably around 2,500m3 on site at any one time.

&#8220System build is a genuine solution to the building needs of this country and the timber frame industry is being handed a fantastic opportunity by the government through their policies on sustainability and the environment”

Joe Martoccia, sales and marketing director

“We are one of the very few companies in the country to use Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest and we use about 5m3 per Heritage dwelling, of which we do about 20 a month. The beams are all handcrafted.

“The timber from North America is air-dried for six to nine months so we buy a year in advance.

“We source whitewood from Scandinavia, central Europe and Canada and all the timber arrives kiln-dried, stress graded and planed all round. We do all our own engineering, truss manufacture and timber treatment, so we are a self contained unit and not reliant on outside sources.”

Timber merchants

Potton, which buys all its own timber, has recently been approached by timber merchants looking to form an alliance. Mr Martoccia said: “They are forward thinking and want to provide a timber frame package to smaller developers. We are in discussion with a major merchant group about a pilot scheme for one of their regions.

“There are parts of the package they can provide and if there is an alliance with a timber frame manufacturer they will reap the benefits. They came to us because they are getting more and more requests for timber frame from their client base.”

Potton is currently promoting three or more storey buildings which give a maximum return on investment. Mr Martoccia said: “Because of the change in Building Regulations developers are being forced to look at apartment block building to suit demographic changes for housing associations and for key worker accommodation in cities. This is why a number of builders are experiencing their first involvement with timber frame.

“Even die-hard traditional builders are looking at timber frame because government policy is driving them down that route.”

Deputy prime minister John Prescott has expressed concern that system building does not have the capacity to cope with growth but Mr Martoccia said the industry is facing up to the challenge.

“Although that is a fair criticism, if you total up the investment in the timber frame sector over recent years – our investment in our new sawmill is an example – then the industry is ready to accommodate this growth – so perhaps we should challenge him on this. System build is a genuine solution to the building needs of this country and the timber frame industry is being handed a fantastic opportunity by the government through their policies on sustainability and the environment,” said Mr Martoccia.