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Thinking outside the box - Irish Examiner article by Tommy Barker

Saturday 30 January 2010

Thinking outside the box - Irish Examiner article by Tommy Barker

The chance to be hands-on (or, more accurately, fingers on) in the design of a garden room, home office, den or house extension - with price certainty - is offered by a new Irish business expansion and its smart website features.

The people behind Cygnum, one of the country's largest timber frame manufacturing companies and exporters, have thought outside the box for their latest product diversification - GetOuterSpace.com, just now starting to roll off their Macroom, Co. Cork factory floor.

Cygnum has provided frames for thousands of homes and apartments in Ireland and the UK since the mid-1990: one of its larger UK orders right now is for 240 apartments for a site at St Alban's in Hertfordshire.

And, while its Irish demand from developers is, in line with the overall market, rock-bottom right now, it has steady orders for another of its core areas, timber frames for one-off houses, currently one to the construction'ssectors demand lifelines.

Employment has stabilised, at about 30 employees, down from the building boom period of four or five years ago when Cygnum employed 250, and kept its output going 24-hours a day from its €5 million, 50,000 sq ft new factory.

Now, it is making a virtue of its downsizing, innovating in terms of what it will produce, from the same factory, workforce, skills-set and materials: enter their Outer Spaces.

Now, their garden rooms and extensions aren't entirely radical - after all, Wicklow-based company Shomera had around 1,300 off-site or factory built structures/extensions to its credit - but this new rival, which is now setting out to compete in Irish and UK markets, has a few Unique Selling Points, or USPs.

Its interactive website, which allows the would-be client to work variations on design offerings, is one strong suit. By changing size, design, roof types, finishes and cladding colours, window options etc, there's already 20,000 variations.

By the end of the year, other options you can choose at the click of your home PC or laptop mouse will exponentially bring the options to 200,000 they say.

And, each time you make a change to the package/design, the price you pay to have it realised immediately pops up on screen. For anyone who has ever entered into a build project/extension, the sort of certainty that comes with this precise costing element of the package will be a boon.

Depending on size and choice, typical prices for sub-40 sq metre rooms (the size threshold under which planning permission may not be required) will range from €20,000 to €26,000, plus VAT at 13.5%: going for a flat roof instead of a pitched one might vary some design choices by around €2,000, while a window choice - eg pvc, Nordic Pine or aluminium - can makea price difference of about €1,000 up or down.

The great thing is, you see the price impact immediatelywith every change, stresses GetOuterSpace.com and Cygnum MD John Desmond. His claim that the design/pricing on-line element is child's play to use is born our by his daughter Cara who 'stress-tested' the website's prototype - at eight years of age.

Noting that"staying in is the new going out," John Desmond says that the garden rooms they are just launching will find a range of uses, from home offices, studios, gyms, teenagedens and band gigging spots, to band rehearsal space, hopefully out of earshot of the main house and neighbours.

Although primarily web-based, GetOuterSpace.com have erected two show units at their/Cygnum factory in Coolcower,Macroom, two more are on the way, and two have been sold and supplied already, just by work of mouth.

Typical time from startof process to delivery is likely to be about six weeksm they reckon, and they arrange ground pads and bases in advance of delivery.

Gardenrooms and extensions are built to high insulation standards and full buildinghouse-standard regs, with structures guaranteed for 20 years. "There's huge interest in enegy efficient building, and while our core timber frame business in Cygnum is still very active, with the dramatic slowdown in the housing market we also needed to diversify," says John Desmond.

"GetOuterSpace.com is the result of considerable research and development and it's a positive business story. Our highly skilled team in an Irish company is using their experience to bring a new product and brand to the market instead of waiting for the housing market to recover."

Architect Mark Collins of CBA Architecture (www.cbaarchitecture.ie) in Douglas is currently coming up with further designs, as well as doing prototypes of ann ingenious range of extensions to be built off-site, then linked simpy to existing dwellings, via short (eg 3' to 5' link sections) which allow light to flow in from the 'created' area between the house and extension.