Meet the landlord building houses in its own factory. Jess McCabe finds out that homes can be built in a day
Other things they don’t often do: run factories.
But if you visit Walsall, you may as well throw all the rules of conventional wisdom out of the recycled PVC window.
On an industrial estate, on the edge of the 2,172-home Beechdale estate, is a factory.
Step inside and you’ll struggle to be heard over the sound of sawing wood and machinery. This is a factory for building ‘low carbon’ houses. In a single day, this production line spits out the timber frames and panels of one house. ‘It takes eight hours. One house, one shift, one day,’ says Jason Powell, head of manufacturing.
Unusually, this factory is run by LoCal Homes, a social enterprise owned by the 13,000-home housing association Accord Group. And it seems to be beating the construction industry at its own game.
According to the numbers, LoCal Homes is building highly efficient homes, out of environmentally friendly materials, that will cost residents only £200 a year to heat. And it’s doing so for the same price as a home that just meets minimum building regulations, built using traditional methods (see box below: Price wars).
Inside Housing is visiting to see for ourselves a house built in a day, and find out why Accord decided to set up a factory. We also wanted to learn how a housing association learns to manufacture a product.
At the start of the production line, Jenna Webster, aged 25, is cutting a stack of timber to size on an automated sawing machine in a pink safety jacket. The noise of cutting wood is deafening, but she pauses for a moment. ‘It is hard work but you get used to it,’ she says.
The timber she is cutting has arrived from Scandinavia via a timber merchant.
This is quite appropriate, because in a sense, the entire factory project is also a Scandinavian import.
Accord’s experiment with timber-frame homes began about 10 years ago. John Bedford was, at the time, a consultant architect for the group. ‘Alan Yates, my boss, said I would like you to pop across to Norway because I’ve seen these homes being built,’ explains Mr Bedford, who is now director of projectdevelopment for Accord InDesign, the housing association’s in-house architecture team.
‘Accord were going through traditional design and build contracts. But they felt they weren’t particularly getting good homes,’ he recalls.
By contrast, the pair liked what they found in Norway: highly insulated, high quality homes, built from timber frames in a factory run by a Norwegian firm called Hedalm Anebyhus.
First, Accord imported around 140 homes from the Norwegian firm and monitored the results, carrying out a full review. ‘They understood thermal modelling better than we did,’ Mr Bedford recalls. And the result was homes that were cheap for tenants to heat.
However, the cost of importing the timber frames across the North Sea was about £5,000 each time. By 2009, Accord started to wonder if there was another alternative: building the homes here.
Accord didn’t jump straight to setting up in business for itself.
At first, Mr Bedford talked to Hedalm Anebyhus about the idea of that company opening a factory in Britain. ‘They said no, but we’re happy if you want to go it alone. Do what you need to do,’ recalls Mr Bedford. (Hedalm was contacted for this story but did not respond.)
That might have been that. But by happy coincidence, Walsall Council came into the picture.
The council had a derelict site on its hands. On the edge of the massive Beechwood estate, the site used to house a factory run by Walsall Council’s Links to Work programme, employing people with disabilities to assemble recycled PVC windows. The factory had been shut down some years before, and the site was empty.
Walsall Council was ready to extend the building to twice its size, in part using European Union funding. It threw in three years free rent to seal the deal. The total investment by Accord was about £800,000.
‘When we were offered this particular building, it was a lightbulb moment. We thought, it’s in Beechdale, we know there’s high unemployment. We know the sites available for pockets of development,’ Mr Bedford recalls. The estate is now run by Friendship care and Housing, but Accord had bid to buy it some years back, and so knew it intimately.
The plan was set. But it was not without obstacles.
Getting up and running
If you are acquainted with the workings of factories, as soon as you walk into the factory you might guess what that first obstacle was: ignorance about the workings of production lines.
It is called a production line for a reason – the different machines at work in a factory are usually arranged in a straight line. The product being manufactured therefore is transported easily from one stage in its construction to the next. As a result, automated factories are typically long and thin buildings. LoCal Homes is a rectangle.
‘If I’d found Jason six months before I did, the factory layout might look a bit different. Because I’d never done it before, I didn’t know,’ admits Mr Bedford. He’s talking about the decision to recruit Mr Powell to run the factory, from his previous job running the production line in an automotive factory. The work on extending the shell of this building took place before Mr Powell came on board.
“People came along for a cup of tea. But actually getting them into work was very difficult.”
Jason Powell, LoCal Homes
To overcome the unusual shape, Mr Powell had to design a system to hoist the timber frames sideways from one stage of the production line to the next. Back in the factory, the timber is cut using a precision machine, then is hoisted to the next station, where a group of men are grappling with the next part of the production line.
The panels being constructed today are for the house that will sit on plot 16 of Accord’s Tile Hill estate in Coventry. These will have wool insulation installed – the factory can even fit the windows. ‘Corridor’ is scrawled on one of the frames, to make it extra clear what part will go where.
Another challenge was staffing. Whether you think the effort to recruit local residents was an easy win depends on if you speak to Mr Bedford or Mr Powell.
Before the factory opened, Accord held a recruitment open day. From within walking distance, 500 people expressed an interest, and about 300 people turned up.
Mr Bedford says, ‘It’s a massive interest, isn’t it?’
Mr Powell is less positive. ‘People came along for a cup of tea. But actually getting them into work was very difficult. After speaking to 500 people, we managed to get 12 people who were genuinely interested.
‘We’ve had some real success stories, we’ve had people who’ve never worked. We’ve got local people building local homes,’ he says. But, he adds: ‘The problem we’ve got with this estate is there are three generations [of unemployment]. So the grandfather’s never worked, nor the sons and the grandsons. Their interpretation of life is “We can go through and not work”.’
Today, 50% of LoCal Homes staff are either Accord tenants or related to tenants. ‘I’ve been doing carpentry since I was 18,’ says Martyn Loynes, whose mother is an Accord tenant, taking a break from his role piecing together a panel.
On this day the factory is freezing cold, but the work is hard and the 34-year old is just wearing layers of T-shirts and a safety jacket.
At the other end of the factory, the parts of the house that are already complete have been stacked up in green plastic wrap. A small number of the frames are stored on the site of the factory, but the idea is to deliver them immediately. This is around the 400th home to roll off the production line since it started in January 2012.
Factory-built homes run on a fundamentally different schedule to traditional construction techniques. If it rains, on a traditional build the construction workers will pack up and go home, whereas a factory must continue to produce homes at a rate of about one a day. If they are not delivered, the factory must either pay to store the frame kits, or shut down the production line. Staff will still need to be paid, so both of those options cost money.
LoCal Homes has changed the design of the product to help meet the needs of construction workers – for example, the frames can now maintain their integrity for up to two weeks in the rain.
“The private sector is all about providing the least you can for the most money”
Jason Powell, LoCal Homes
‘They give me a problem, I give them a solution. They keep giving me problems until they’re nothing else to say,’ Mr Powell explains.
‘They still have problems, they just don’t ask him anymore,’ quips Mr Bedford in response.
Building the homes quickly saves money, but finishing homes and getting tenants moved in is also aligned with Accord’s very motivation for starting this project in the first place. ‘The aim is to get someone out of a hostel and into a home as soon as possible,’ Mr Powell points out.
The house built today is destined to be shipped to Coventry. Almost all the frames manufactured to date in the factory have been sold by LoCal Homes to its parent, Accord, for use in its own building programme. Ten of the homes were sold to the other members in Matrix, a regeneration and development partnership of six housing associations.
At present, the homes are produced at a rate and cost that meets the company’s overheads, and Accord’s demand.
‘The private sector is all about providing the least you can for the most money,’ Mr Powell notes. ‘When it came to the Accord Group, it was all about how can we build the best homes we can, with value for money.’
In other words, LoCaL Homes wanted to manufacture a product that would prove a valuable asset for the housing association.
Forty of the homes have been assembled just opposite the factory, on the edge of the estate and the very first tenants have just moved in. Another 70 will go up in phase two. It’s a testament that the obstacles can be overcome. The houses are clad in handsome black, white and brown wood – although Accord has ‘Anglicised’ the design, this still feels like walking around a Little Norway in the Midlands.
Stepping inside one that is nearly finished, even without the heating on, it’s suddenly a bearable temperature. It’s not hard to believe Accord’s sales pitch.
Proof perhaps, that homes could one day spring in significant numbers from housing association production lines in the UK.
LoCaL Homes is producing homes at a cost of approximately £23,500 for the frames, roof and floor of a semi-detached family house with three bedrooms – the same as the cost of doing the same using traditional construction methods, the firm says.
The difference is that for this price you could buy a traditionaly-built home that meets current building regulations, whereas, the firm says, homes meet the ‘fabric first’ requirements of Code 4 under the old Code for Sustainable Homes, used to measure the environmental credentials of residential buildings.
The price does not include some key costs in building a home (for example, laying the foundations), and it changes depending on the specifications required.
Still, does it cast doubt on claims by the industry that sustainability standards are too expensive to meet?
Sustainability expert Rory Bergin, a partner at architect firm HTA Design, is usually a critic of a lack of ambition on this front. But he suggests not. ‘Small, agile factories can build to high performance targets more easily than the large housebuilders because they don’t have standard types already designed, and with planning permission on lots of sites, they have a supply chain set up to deliver using traditional construction,’ he notes.
‘We’re not competing with anybody; we’re saying come and join us,’ says John Bedford, director of project development at Accord InDesign, the housing association’s in-house architecture team.
Richard Baines, director of sustainable housing for the neighbouring Black Country Housing Group, and a former colleague of Mr Bedford, might have the answer why that hasn’t happened just yet. ‘You need to order the frames before you have the site. More conventional housing associations don’t seem able to do this, citing risk of having fames and no site to put them on,’ he explains.
This is a difficulty that LoCal Homes has not run into so far, perhaps because it is overwhelmingly producing homes for its parent.
Still, Accord is speeding up construction this year so it can manufacture timber frames for sale, possibly to other housing associations. It is also in negotiations with two local authorities to set up franchises of LoCal Homes in non-competing areas of the country.
It is also not the only one in the housing sector with the same idea. Only a few weeks ago, the consortium Procure Plus said it will set up a factory on behalf of its housing association members that could churn out 1,000 homes a year.