The weather has not done the horticulture industry any favours this year - neither has the economic climate. To sum up the thoughts of many: "It is too wet to be in the garden and, anyway, the public are not spending."
Yet there is also a mood of optimism. "We are very busy just now. In fact, we've taken on two structural design engineers," says CambridgeHOK business development manager Noel O'Leary. The company was recently awarded Technical Innovation Project of the Year by the Building Controls Industry Association for the engineering and installation of a control system at the Eden Project.
Work abroad is helping keep some glasshouse companies busy. O'Leary mentions a possible project in Qatar, and is starting on a build in Northern Ireland next week, while Alitex has been working on a large-scale glasshouse of distinction for a large garden in New Jersey (see p34).
As far as the market is concerned, Naturelight commercial manager Ken Morris says he is encouraged by the amount of interest generated by the company's greenhouse. "People have described it as 'the best new structure they have seen' and 'packaged common sense'," he reports.
Morris has noticed, however, that the economy and weather are making customers cautious. "We are in regular contact with a significant number of potential clients from the public and private sectors, many of whom are delaying capital expenditure decisions, quarter by quarter, while looking for clear signs of an economic upturn," he says.
Considering the weather, Morris says: "British horticulture needs smart climate solutions to help manage the erratic weather patterns - ideally a system providing protection from the rigours of wind and rain but with the technology to exploit the natural benefits of fresh air and full-spectrum ultraviolet light and sunshine that isn't filtered through glass."
Such a structure already exists. Naturelight manufactures a greenhouse with a fully opening roof that can be controlled manually or be linked to a sensor system that responds to preset parameters of temperature, humidity, rainfall and wind speed.
The prefabricated structure, designed for ease of assembly, is manufactured principally from customised aluminium profiles with some steel components and specially-designed plastic mouldings. It is side-glazed with toughened glass - and more than 90 per cent of the components are sourced from the UK.
Standard module units are 11.4x8m or 11.4x6.4m, although structures can be customised to other dimensions if required.
"Although we can't control the weather, at least we can manage the environmental conditions," says Morris. "The greenhouse is totally weather-proof, while offering more than 90 per cent of its roof aperture to the elements, on demand, at the touch of a button within one minute."
The mechanism is powered by waterproof, dustproof Low-Power Linear Actuators, while the polycarbonate roofing panels, structural framework, roof system and controls are substantially maintenance-free and guaranteed for 10 years. Suited to both production and retail situations, recent orders have been secured in north Wales, East Anglia and the North West.
Over the past 12 months, in perhaps a sign of the difficult economic times, there has been little in the way of groundbreaking development around glasshouse fixtures and fittings, whether for production houses, display houses, prop units or retail shops.
For irrigation control, the Evapoirrigation interface, or Eii, is the latest addition to the range of equipment from ETS. Developed from the results of extensive Defra and Horticultural Research & Development Corporation research and nursery trials, Eii (MK1.3) exploits the company's award-winning EvapoSensor to automatically adjust irrigation frequency according to conditions.
"This means that water applied can be matched to crop requirements, thus saving water and improving plant quality," says ETS founder and director John Walker. He suggests that the system is especially suitable for small to medium-sized enterprises. "It is uncomplicated and takes the guesswork out of deciding when to irrigate," he adds.
The key feature of Eii is its ability to integrate evaporation rate over time. It triggers irrigation when accumulated evaporation reaches a user-adjustable target value. MK1.3 Interface+ extends the EvapoSensor range by storing the starts that would occur during the day, in those areas where wetting would be a concern for personnel or to the general public, and allows access at a time convenient to the grower.
To encourage the slow movement of air mass in large spaces, Pickings Lifts has added High Volume Low Speed fans to its product range. The fans provide a breeze that can be beneficial at certain growth stages of, say, herbs. A benefit when used in greenhouse structures and polytunnels is the circulation of available heat. In addition, any gases used or released by the crop are dispersed within the area.
Alitex in America
Alitex's project in New Jersey was a real challenge for the design office, as head of design Tony Spooner explains: "We love the scale and detail of our smaller greenhouse projects being scaled up in this way.
"The client wanted the glasshouse to be made of aluminium, but to have the classic look of traditional timber; it meant that the upkeep would be much simpler than wood and more sustainable.
"The glasshouse was to be built in three parts - one to provide the perfect growing conditions for a prized orchid collection, another for general planting displays and an area for potting."
With the glasshouse to be located 20m from a new-build, mock-Georgian house, its height was all-important providing a focal point reminiscent of the grand Victorian conservatories - in a setting of formal planting with parkland beyond. It was also essential to add detail that would be sympathetic to the Georgian feel of the house - horizontal beading was commissioned for the glazing, and the finial cast was based on a style of the era.
The display benching in the greenhouse has been selected to provide a traditional entertaining space. Outside, the timber look has been created using Alitex's Thomas Messenger glazing system, paying tribute to the 19th century greenhouse pioneer by designing in aluminium that looks like a traditional Victorian greenhouse with no unnecessary visible nuts or bolts - despite 16,000 of them being used in the construction.
9.7t of aluminium has been used in the construction - 1.2t in the atrium alone. The door height is 2.51m. 774 panes of glass have been used, with 3,360 glazing clips.
The construction includes 408m of wide bars, 296m of narrow bars, 56m of bottom rails, 174m of beading, 120m of P-Strip and 27m of inseal.
Eden new controls
The Eden Project is one of the first to fully integrate horticultural and building controls. The new energy-efficient Priva system has reduced the centre's carbon emissions by 111 tonnes in an eight-month period and has resulted in energy savings in excess of 1.4Gwh.
CambridgeHOK engineered and installed the control system in three phases: replacing existing controls in the energy centre, visitor centre, kitchens and restaurant, offices and education centre; replacing controls in the Biomes; and installing sensors and logging equipment for water management and remote alarm monitoring.