Company profile | Aco’s sustainable staying power

Aco’s holistic approach to water management is proving increasingly valuable as an antidote to climate change and Britain’s diminishing biodiversity. 

Management of surface water is the specialty of the Aco Group, widely acknowledged as being among the world’s top suppliers of storm water control and sustainable drainage systems. 

Extensive investment in research and development plus a history of innovation means the company is
well placed to meet market demands in an era of increasingly challenging weather events and heightened ecological concern.

Targeted drainage products

“Our drainage products, design services and assistance to infrastructure engineers are targeted at the effective management of surface water,” says Mike Simpson Lane who is managing director of Aco Technologies, the group’s UK division which was established in 1984.

Water management he defines, in essence, as dealing with surface water quantity – in particular, the water’s interception and eventual release. Water quality can come into the equation, he says, and so too can storage and attenuation of the effects of storm water runoff.

These latter items are gaining in importance as weather patterns change and the UK is forecast to receive increased rainfall in the years ahead. Sustainability has joined resilience as key words within the hydrologist’s lexicon, according to Simpson Lane, who stresses that both have long been accommodated in the formulation of Aco drainage systems.

Aco products were used extensively at the London Olympics site

Beyond this, wildlife safety and biodiversity have considerably influenced Aco’s thinking. Simpson Lane states that Aco has always paid much more than lip service to wildlife conservation, funding research and development into appropriate safeguarding measures which include wildlife fencing and road crossing tunnel systems – versions of which date back 35 years.

“We’re very conscious that, here in Britain, loss of biodiversity is currently occurring faster than anywhere else in Europe, that one in three species is under threat,” he says. 

“We feel it is essential to protect wildlife habitats but also to provide means to facilitate migration, for example between habitats and spawning grounds.” 

The range of Aco wildlife systems includes guide walls and kerbs specifically designed to guide species away from danger, posed by gullies, other drainage components and roads. 

Innovation, an embedded philosophy from the outset

Aco as an entity stems from the Ahlmann Company (from which it gets its title), a family business dating back to 1840 and based in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Germany. Ahlmann Company worked principally in cast iron within the roads, agriculture and shipbuilding industries. 

From the 1920s, sewer product development began in concert with project engineers working on Hamburg’s early sewer system. Working in collaboration with engineers on projects was to become very much an Aco “thing”, designing and producing practical solutions on the basis of close professional collaboration.

Move into precast

There was a move into precast concrete for products such as large diameter pipes in the late 1930s, followed by adoption of plastics by the 1950s. By this time, Aco had been founded by Josef-Severin Ahlmann and attention was turning increasingly towards surface water drainage. 

“The catalyst for this emerged during the development of simple box section channels for domestic driveway drainage together with the exploitation of a basic principle: that water finds its own level,” says Simpson Lane.

“Expressed crudely, the channels did not have to be laid to a fall – they could be installed level. They just needed an opening at one end, allowing intercepted surface water to disperse. Made of lightweight materials, the channels were inexpensive to produce and inexpensive plus easy to lay.”

Concept breakthrough

The general concept represented a breakthrough for Aco; one that would be applied in a civils context. Aco went on to develop a range of channel drainage solutions plus an array of other surface water management products. 

The UK division, Aco Technologies, is based in Shefford, Bedfordshire. It has two manufacturing sites and uses a diverse range of materials including polymer concrete, iron, steel and plastic.

Aco Technologies has worked on a number of substantial surface water management projects in Britain, for Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, and at the Olympic Games site in London. For the latter it developed an innovative hybrid polymer concrete – named Vienite – which contained 20% recycled material, fulfilling a condition imposed on all would be Olympic Park tenderers. The investment proved worthwhile. 

Aco systems were employed right around the athletics track, at the water jump and in the pit for the pole vault. 

“We won business right through the Olympic Park site,” says Simpson Lane.

Innovation has always been an Aco Technologies strong point: a talent fostered by the company’s own in-house and external design team members, skilled in hydrology and the interconnection of systems; often with input from the consultants with whom Aco has collaborated.

In addition to its design skills, Aco Technologies offers software to help the engineering community make its own calculations, as well as design visualisers to help assess the impact of various inlet and grating details. 

Aco has won two Queen’s Awards for its drainage products

Of particular interest is Quad Hydraulic design 2.0, the first cloud-based drainage design software available to the market. Offered free to users, it enables the efficient and accurate hydraulic design of surface water management schemes.

Another measure of Aco Technologies’ commitment to lateral design thinking and development is the two Queen’s Awards for Innovation it has received, the first in 2001, the second 2006. 

We’re very conscious that, here in Britain, loss of biodiversity is currently occurring faster than anywhere else in Europe

The 2001 award was for Aco’s Qmax product, a versatile high capacity drainage system that provides optimum surface drainage attenuation for infrastructure, industrial, hard landscaped and other SuDS applications.

Aco’s KerbDrain won the second award. KerbDrain is a combined kerb and linear drainage system that can be used with all kinds of infrastructure, from minor highways to motorways, car parks and urban landscapes. 

Despite its success Aco Technologies is not resting on its laurels, in particular over its impact on the environment. It has long concentrated on recycling and the recyclability of its products plus reducing and offsetting carbon emissions.

“We remain committed to always looking at how to reduce our environmental impact in our manufacturing processes and also the design, delivery and final use of our products,” says Simpson Lane. 

  • Published in association with Aco

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