Inside Housing and Bouygues UK bring sector leaders together to discuss how innovation can help meet the 300,000-homes-a-year target. Photography by Belinda Lawley
In association with:
It is perhaps fitting that a round table discussion on promoting innovation in the housebuilding sector is taking place in a meeting room at the Palace of Westminster – a building which is undergoing a complete refurbishment.
Like with Westminster, the status quo is no longer an option for house builders. If the sector is to meet the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year, it is going to have to do things differently.
But what shape should this innovation take? And what can the sector – as well as the politicians working in this crumbling masterpiece – do to promote it?
Richard Hyams, director at Astudio Architects, puts it this way: “We have to turn this massive cruise liner of the industry around. In order to be able to do what we need to do, you almost have to forget what you know and embrace something new. That is the greatest challenge.”
Darren Gill, managing director of Bouygues UK, agrees the sector has to be bold. “The only way we can deliver what is needed in terms of numbers is to think radically differently from what we have done before,” he says. “[The future] is coming – and the ones that are not prepared to embrace that are going to fall by the wayside.”
The challenge for the future is about more than simply increasing supply, however.
Increased affordability is crucial, and the new homes must be well built and fit for the communities of today and tomorrow.
So how can the sector ramp up the speed of delivery, while ensuring the highest levels of quality? The most promising avenue, according to today’s attendees, is to move towards a manufacturing approach to housebuilding.
“It is self-evident that we are not going to build the homes we need unless many more of them are precision manufactured in factories,” says Jamie Ratcliff, assistant director – programme, policy and services (housing and land) at the Greater London Authority. “This isn’t a choice – we have to do this.”
“We need to get our heads around how we move construction towards manufacturing as a broad concept,” agrees Mark Farmer, chief executive of Cast Consultancy. “There is a need for us to think differently about how we design and deliver buildings.”
Standardisation is what will enable offsite manufacturing to become more efficient and automated, says Matthew Howell-Jones, partner at consultancy Arcadis. “At the moment it is a cottage industry. To enable [offsite manufacturing] to move to the next stage, to invest in more automation in the factories, a standardised product is really what will allow that [to happen].”
Crucially, the sector needs to move towards standardisation in a way that still allows for mass customisation, says Mr Farmer.
“In residential, we continue to perpetuate the myth that everything has to be bespoke-designed,” he says. “Architectural creativity can absolutely embrace a kit-of-parts approach. You take a platform of bits and pieces that you can put together in an infinite number of ways and still be massively creative, and our manufacturing supply chains can be aligned behind that.”
“The ones that are not prepared to embrace [the future] are going to fall by the wayside.” - Darren Gill, managing director, Bouygues UK
Zohra Chiheb, project architect at Levitt Bernstein, agrees that she and her colleagues can build within those kinds of parameters without rolling out a lot of ‘identikit’ houses.
“It is quite liberating to work with a kit of parts of things that have to be standard,” she says, adding that more money could then be spent on things like landscaping and common areas.
Change comes from within, as the hotdog vendor explained to the Buddhist when asked why he was keeping the latter’s $20 note. But the discussion today raises several interesting examples of innovative thinking to be found beyond the boundaries of the housebuilding sector.
Bouygues UK, for example, has gone so far as to leave dry land in search of fresh approaches. “Cruise liners are floating communities, and they are doing some fantastic innovations – there is a lot we could do together,” says Fabienne Viala, chair of Bouygues UK. “We are working [with a cruise liner builder] to see if we can find a way of working together.”
Tesla, the cutting-edge electric car and power source manufacturer, comes up repeatedly.
“An engine in a traditional car has 2,500 component parts; the engine in a Tesla car has around 25,” says Darren Gill, managing director of Bouygues UK. “That gives you a feel for what needs to happen and what is possible going forward.”
Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Genesis, is looking to Sweden for inspiration.
“Ikea went back to first principles and thought about what people wanted within their homes.
“They had liveliness and creativity in their thinking,” she says.
And these new methods of construction can promote joined-up and more efficient ways of working, too. “Modern methods of construction can be a way of aligning everyone’s values,” Ms Chiheb argues. “The client, the landowner, the design team and the future occupier can come together to create the best quality housing. This is where BIM [building information modelling] is going to come into its own – we can get a live, federated model with everyone working together.”
Focus on workforce
But if this mooted move towards new ways of designing and building homes is to be successful, there will need to be a workforce to match. “One of the reasons it’s difficult to innovate in construction is because we don’t necessarily have the right skills, the right brains,” says Fabienne Viala, chair of Bouygues UK. “It’s a fantastic industry but it needs to be rebooted – it’s not very sexy. There’s a lot we could do to improve its image.”
For Kent Taylor, chief executive of Red Door Ventures – a build-to-rent developer owned by Newham Council – attracting young people into a career in the housebuilding sector is about more than building a workforce. It’s about introducing talent and fresh thinking, he contends to murmurs of agreement from around the table.
“We have got to have some free thinking in our education for our young people and somehow move away from the traditional subjects,” he says. “We are all shaped by our history and learning experience over the past 30 or 40 years, and yet the innovation of the Teslas and Facebooks of this world are coming from young people.”
Lee Bishop, major developments director at Taylor Wimpey, agrees – to a point. “The reality is we have to get back and capture the hearts and minds of the kids,” he says. “[We need to get] back to humble things like apprenticeships.”
Innovation is fine, he adds, as long as it’s tested, but he cautions his colleagues to keep doing what works, rather than changing things for the sake of it. “I have the scars from some of those innovative schemes that haven’t worked,” he says. “It is about learning from the past to make sure I am not regenerating these new schemes [in the future].”
“Modern methods of construction can be a way of aligning values.” - Zohra Chiheb, project architect, Levitt Bernstein
Mr Bishop finishes his point with a swipe: “If we don’t get the planning right, all this will be a pipe dream.”
That’s not the real issue, says Darren Rodwell, leader of Barking and Dagenham Council. “Don’t tell me planning doesn’t work – it does if it’s done properly,” he says.
For Mr Rodwell, innovation is required in the way we approach building in the first instance. “We have to stop building for the haves and start building for communities again,” he says. “Let’s start talking less about bricks and mortar, and more about hearts and minds. Community has to be the starting point.”
More broadly, what is the government’s role – both locally and nationally – in encouraging and fostering innovation? “The viewpoint of local authorities is unique,” says Eloise Shepherd, head of housing and planning at London Councils. “You exist to serve the needs of the whole community – and from a local authority perspective, if you are in temporary accommodation, there is a huge social and financial cost to that. There is a sense of urgency around delivering not just at scale, but at pace.”
Tony Newman, leader of Croydon Council, echoes that sense of purpose and belief in the potential of local authorities – they just need to be left to get on with it, he argues.
“There is very little party political disagreement at local government level about what needs to be done,” he says. “We have to get treasury and national government out of the way to let innovation flourish and let local communities lead the way.”
Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Genesis, raises a counterpoint. “We say, ‘Get out of the way, national government’, but you need a complete shift to get the change we want to see,” she says. “We haven’t had that crack in the system yet.”
“We have to get government out of the way to let innovation flourish.” - Tony Newman, leader, Croydon Council
Today’s discussion suggests that the sector is aware of where to innovate, and has plenty of ideas about how to do it too. This country may be in the midst of a housing crisis, but there is optimism about the future, as Mr Gill concludes – albeit with a warning.
“The future is now,” he says. “Now is the time to embrace it and collaborate. Nobody should be afraid. Everybody is ready to embrace change. Because if not, we’ll be sitting here in another two years’ time talking about the same thing.”
Major developments director, Taylor Wimpey
Project architect, Levitt Bernstein
Chief executive, Notting Hill Genesis
Managing director, Bouygues UK
Director, Astudio Architects
Chief executive and founder, Cast Consultancy
Leader, Croydon Council
Assistant director – programme, policy and services (housing and land), Greater London Authority
Leader, Barking and Dagenham Council
Head of housing and planning, London Councils
Chief executive, Red Door Ventures
Chair, Bouygues UK