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Modular Construction, an Innovative Solution to the Housing Industry

Authored by Geoff Pearce – Deputy Chief Executive at Swan Housing Association:

Since joining Swan Housing Association at the beginning of 2014, Geoff has overseen the growth of Swan’s regeneration and development programme, progressing long-standing major regeneration projects at Blackwall Reach and Beechwood Village and leading on many new regeneration projects such as Purfleet Town Centre, the Queensway estate in Southend on Sea and the Laindon Centre. In that time Swan’s in-house construction service has grown exponentially and includes opening Swan’s own modular housing factories in Basildon, Essex. In 2020 Geoff was made Deputy Chief Executive, taking on additional responsibilities, including property services and strategic planning across the organisation.

[Image: Geoff Pearce – Deputy Chief Executive at Swan Housing Association]

Swan Housing Association has been ahead of the curve in the property industry having introduced Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) back in 2017 opening their own modular housing factory to build customisable Cross Laminated Timber Volumetric homes. Today, Swan which manages over 11,500 residential properties across Essex and East London, and has over 8,000 more secured in its development pipeline, has now expanded into a second modular factory.

As one of the first Housing Associations to move into modern methods of construction, Swan’s commitment to creating more high-quality, environmentally sustainable homes and thriving communities for those who need it most has driven their progression of MMC. Swan are on an exciting journey. Modular housing offers an innovative solution that will help provide growth in the industry, providing more high quality homes for communities in the UK.

Swan quickly realised the opportunities and benefits that modular construction can bring. As a  business they have been keen to share confidence in modular building early on and have welcomed over a thousand visitors to their factory and launched a modular design guide in 2019 so that other developers could learn from the experiences the housing association faced and produce more homes for everyone in society. Swan believe it is integral that we connect as a sector sharing knowledge and ideas to reach housing targets.

[Image: Swan Housing Modular Factory pre-Covid-19. L to R: Sam Wait – Director of Business Development and External Affairs at Swan, Bill Marsh – Factory Manager, Nadhim Zahawi MP – Minister for Business and Industry (Minister for Covid-19 Vaccine Deployment since this photo was taken), Frank Klepping – Development Director, Development and Regeneration at Swan/NU living, Dean Rosewell – Managing Director, Development and Regeneration at NU living]

Due to their success in modular building, Swan recently announced their acquisition of a newly built 116,841 sq. ft. industrial unit which will open in the Spring 2021, and is situated opposite their existing modular housing factory in Basildon. This new factory will be used, through its NU living development subsidiary, to manufacture light gauge steel modular housing and will operate alongside Swan’s existing Cross Laminated Timber volumetric system delivered in its current factory.

[Images: Swan Housing Modular Factory Pre-Covid-19]

This expanded capacity will not only allow Swan to build high quality modular homes for its own secured development pipeline but also will position NU living, in time, to provide additional capacity to support Swan’s partners and other stakeholders in meeting the growing expectation from the government, for a proportion of modular housing to be incorporated in their own programmes. In fact, Swan’s modular factory is able to save 50% on time during the modular construction process, also saving 10% on cost and 90% reduction in waste, along with increased quality and safety. With both factories in full operation, NU living will eventually be capable of delivering over 1,000 modular homes each year.

The acquisition of the second factory was also a key strategic move as it will give the additional capacity to build at height using a steel framed approach and to increase the use of pre-manufacturing and componentisation. Swan believe in supporting the communities in which they operate and opening the factory will be creating over 120 jobs by the time the factory is in full operation. In addition, Swan will be providing apprenticeships in the Basildon factories in order to allow more young people to flourish and learn in modern construction methods within the manufacturing industry.

Swan Housing Association’s ‘Beechwood Village’ development is positive proof that modular construction provides an innovative solution to the housing industry. The development is regenerating a 1960’s estate (Craylands Estate) into a new, sustainable, long term community that also serves a social purpose. Beechwood Village is one of the first schemes to be produced via Swan’s first modular factory. By adapting their usual working day and making sure the Government guidelines are fully put into effect, Swan’s factory has safely allowed their employees to continue to create quality sustainable modular houses throughout most of the pandemic.

[Images: Beechwood Village – Swan Housing]

However, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the desire to build more homes, a declining construction workforce, and a drive for greater quality. The Farmer review of the UK Construction Labour Model, ‘Modernise or Die’, concluded that based purely on existing workforce age and current numbers of new entrants, this could be seen by the 20-25% decline in the available labour force within a decade. Farmer concludes that pre-manufactured construction will need to form a key component of future construction capacity. Swan Housing’s modular construction offers a more comfortable working environment than traditional methods of construction, therefore attracting more staff.

Modular projects are also gaining greater and greater investment. The South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) has approved £30 million in funding for 14 projects in Essex, Southend and Thurrock from the Getting Building Fund (GBF), including £4.53 million for Swan’s Factory 2. As the country deals with the pandemic and the future of the UK business environment remains uncertain, SELEP’s funded projects will help the industries that are particularly affected by Covid-19. In total the 14 projects benefiting from the funding will create and safeguard 2,633 jobs, unlock and deliver 5,381 homes, support 4,103 learners, and unlock 129,377 square meter of commercial space.

The government is also putting greater emphasis on MMC – including the recent announcement that development programmes funded through the Affordable Homes Programme 2021-26 include at least 25% off-site manufacture. After recent events, greater emphasis will be placed on sustainability, which MMC is a key component of in the property sector. This new announcement is definitely a step in the right direction and will enable Swan to support their partners to meet their modular delivery targets and Swan continue to seek to support and engage with the government about the opportunities modular can bring.

As we begin 2021, Swan’s talented factory team will continue to create quality sustainable modular houses for expanding into modular steel production to increase their capacity, and are looking forward to supporting their local authority and housing association partners to deliver on their future modular housing commitments.

Added 21 January 2021