May 29, 2017

Offsite timber frame solutions for a changing world

We live in a changing world and for housebuilding this means fewer resources and less money, a widening supply and demand gap, more customer demands and an aging workforce in an industry with deep-rooted cultures.

Housing delivery in the UK is becoming more and more of a challenge but there is a real opportunity if we can address these issues. A housebuilding revolution could deliver economic growth for the UK, new jobs, wealth, more homes, create great places to live and ultimately ensure we focus on the customer. Offsite construction methods can help to ease the economic strain of housebuilding.

There are significant challenges around how homes are currently delivered, predominantly via masonry construction in the UK: lack of skills; changing regulations; the drive towards low carbon; higher quality, predictable delivery at lower cost and increasing demands from consumers. We also need to look at the housing delivery model, which is typically speculative with a lot of waste, high front-end costs and risks.

Driving change through this process is a challenge and will involve adding value at the front-end, possibly through customisation, or great place-making, or off-plan sales using virtual reality that would shift the cash flow forward with the back-end being about on time in full delivery with zero defects. This approach shifts the process to a “build-to-order” model, as opposed to a speculative at-risk model.

The construction industry therefore requires efficiency through having predictable and smart processes with less waste and greater certainty.

Government is driving this change agenda with its Housing White Paper; the “modernise or die” Farmer Review; HCA Accelerated Construction programme; the Home Building Fund; Public Land Releases; Neighbourhood Planning Bill; presumption in favour and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, which looked into the quality and workmanship of new build housing. All of which is well intentioned and geared towards delivering more new homes.

Timber frame offsite solutions are the largest offsite manufacturing producer in the UK, accounting for 60,000 UK homes, or one in four new homes. This is on track to become one in three. We have a strong foundation here on which to build, with a cost-effective, fabric first, simple and high quality approach. The UK already has capacity and a wide variety of timber frame solutions – we simply need to use the capacity and capability we have to significantly increase outputs. And with certainty of future work, we can build more homes, especially when the timber frame offsite sector currently has capacity for 100,000 homes now.

We have established supply chains and, with an abundance of timber available, there is no constraint in material. Wood is sustainable, engineered, low cost and low carbon.

Timber frame is also embracing digital technology. Our factories have been working in 3D parametric design for 20 years and we will work with architects to drive even greater efficiency through more digitisation earlier in the process. Shifting the customer interaction to virtual reality could move the housing model from the current high-risk speculative one to a sales off-plan model, securing the money and confidence up front to build efficiently, as is seen in the automotive sector. Homes will be manufactured and this will enable greater customisation to meet individual customer specifications, as well as raising quality and reducing defects and delays due to unforeseen and unplanned events like the weather, materials not turning up, or shortages of skilled tradesmen

What we need to achieve this is visibility of demand and surety of orders, and then we can scale up our output within existing factories and then build new factories. This means commitment from Government and the private sector. This will deliver industrialisation and digitisation in the homebuilding sector and is absolutely aligned with the UK industrial strategy.

Timber frame is a proven and oven-ready solution to the UK’s housebuilding challenge. It is already the UK’s offsite solution of choice; it’s proven and low-risk. Our product is cost competitive and high quality. Wood is a low carbon, flexible material of choice and we have the capacity on tap now. As an industry, we are also ready to invest in further capacity, plant and equipment if the demand is there.

For this solution to work effectively we need long-term client and supplier commitments, visibility of supply and demand surety, with collaborative working and early engagement from all the stakeholders. Together housing delivery can be transformed with timber frame offsite solutions.

Homes For Scotland Home Builders Federation National House-Building Council Royal Institute of British Architects Structural Timber Association Constructionline British Board of Agrement Wood Campus Build Off Site Building Research Establishment WOOD FOR GOOD

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