Swan Housing Group has invested in its own factory to deliver much-needed homes through offsite modular construction. Housing minister James Brokenshire recently visited the site to see how this precision-engineered approach can deliver attractive, greener homes while saving money and cutting waste
On 31 May, the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, visited Swan Housing’s NU build factory in Basildon, Essex, along with its show homes at Beechwood West.
This private visit was requested by the minister’s team as a result of them hearing about Swan’s exciting new approach through various speaking engagements and Swan’s recent submission to the House of Lords Select Committee review of offsite construction.
The minister was welcomed to the Basildon factory by John Synnuck, Swan Housing’s chief executive, and he and his team were given a short presentation not only on Swan’s approach but also the potential for growth and the clear demand from local authority and housing association partners. Swan highlighted to the minister and his team the opportunity for growth not just for Swan and but also the wider offsite sector, with government support.
Brokenshire and his team took a tour of the NU build factory, where they were inspired by the scale and Swan’s approach. Finally, everyone then visited the sales suite at Beechwood West, where the team demonstrated NU living’s configurator software that allows buyers to customise their new house and gave tours of the show homes. The minister and his team were clearly impressed by the high quality design and liveability of the Beechwood West homes.
Why their own factory?
Swan opened its own factory just 1.5 miles from Beechwood West to enable modules to be efficiently delivered to site and to continue to stimulate social and economic regeneration in Basildon, the borough where Swan started out in 1994 with just 2,000 homes.
Unlike other housing associations who are entering the modular market, Swan is not relying on additional or foreign investment. It is funding the factory set-up, ongoing costs and production of the homes from the budget for its redevelopment the Craylands estate (now Beechwood) in Basildon.
Even when allowing for these costs, Swan believes it can make savings against traditional construction – and deliver completed homes to site 50% quicker than traditional construction methods. The association’s team wants to help build local and national expertise in manufacturing and support the growing UK modular industry while returning gift aid to Swan to further its social purpose.
Why use offsite construction?
Although Swan has its own in-house developer, NU Living, in the past it had experienced delays at Beechwood with previous contractors going out of business, delays due to weather etc and, although NU Living was going to build the remaining phases to further increase viability and reduce time, Swan began to look at offsite construction.
The association’s board was very aware of the findings of the Farmer Report and the pressing need to modernise the construction industry, so was keen to explore if offsite could offer an additional way to deliver high quality homes.
Research continued and the Regeneration Team, led by Geoff Pearce, Swan’s executive director of regeneration and development, proposed a volumetric approach using cross-laminated timber (CLT). They were clear that the benefits of offsite modular construction included the ability to precision engineer homes in a high quality factory setting, which not only was a weatherproof environment in which the homes would be built, but also for staff too. Being accessible, the factory setting was likely to make it easier to retain some of the highly skilled construction workers who might be thinking of leaving the profession and to attract a new, diverse workforce.
CLT is a sustainable construction material that uses soft wood timber grown in managed forests. It’s tough, long lasting and used widely throughout Europe and the USA to construct homes.
Forests are managed so that every tree used is replaced and when used in construction, CLT locks away carbon rather than omitting further carbon as happens during traditional construction processes. Structurally, CLT can produce units from one to 12 floors. It’s an easily machinable, large-scale product that is thermally and acoustically efficient.
Costs and efficiencies
The factory’s initial build cost was £1,670m but with £200m savings identified for future output. Effectively, the factory will be funded by the development costs of Beechwood West – then all future developments will be efficiently delivered. Swan already has planning permission for a further 224 CLT homes plus retail space at its Laindon Shopping Centre.
Overall, Swan expects to see a minimum 10% reduction in costs initially, along with up to 90% reduction on waste compared to a traditional building site. Offcuts of CLT will be used to heat and power the factory.
Homes are expected to be completed in 50% of traditional construction time and with the factory processes driving up quality, defects will be reduced, while cost certainty is increased.
Benefits for residents
Although when complete the homes will be indistinguishable from traditionally built homes, they will be greener, more sustainable (including cheaper to heat), come with the usual 12-year guarantees and 60-year quality assurance.
They will also be stylish homes that, in the case of 270 homes for private sale, will be customisable by the buyer, giving them the opportunity to create their own home from a million different options! Buyers will be able to use NU living’s configurator software to design their new home from their current one or in the stylish sales suite on site.
John Synnuck, Swan’s chief executive, said: “At Swan, we understand that the desperate need for quality new homes. We believe that offsite construction methods will enable us to deliver these much-needed homes quickly, designed to a high specification and with reduced impact on both local residents and the environment.”
Swan Housing Group
Tel: +44 (0)300 303 2500