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Built to last

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How two housing developments have balanced getting homes delivered quickly with maintaining a high level of quality.  Photography by James Kerr and Trevor Burrows

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Nelson Project

Scheme: Nelson Project, Plymouth
Contractor: Interserve
Client: Plymouth City Council and partners
Details: 24 one-bedroom units, including six for people with learning disabilities, six for affordable rent, and 12 for armed services veterans
Cost: £3.3m
Build time: 16 months on site

“In a military city, to be able to do something that particularly supported homeless veterans or veterans who were in accommodation that wasn’t fit for their purpose was a really big sell on this site,” says Chris Penberthy, cabinet member for housing and co-operative development at Plymouth City Council.

The award-winning Nelson Project, which is made up of 24 one-bedroom homes, was built by volunteer armed services veterans who now live in 12 of the new properties. “They worked on the whole of the project, from the foundation to the roofs,” says Mick Carter, a council officer with Plymouth who leads on housing delivery. “Throughout, they gained qualifications, life skills and a tenancy at the end of it.”

One-third of those volunteers went on to find employment within the construction sector. But the scheme’s self-build nature was not a reason to skimp on the quality of either its design or construction. The scheme was designed by local architects Form Design, which “are never going to compromise” on quality, Mr Penberthy says. The homes are made with Plymouth limestone, zinc, and high-quality glazing, based on an envelope of lightweight blocks – provided by H+H –and were built to what he describes as a very high standard. Perhaps more impressively, the scheme came in under budget and on time. From the selection of the main contractor – Interserve – to completion of the scheme it took 28 months; from the day the diggers first moved in, it took just 16.

The key to that, Mr Penberthy says, lay in the strength of the broad partnership behind the scheme. Working to deliver the Nelson Project alongside the council were the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), which provided funding; the Community Self Build Agency (CSBA); local housing association DCH (now known as Liverty); and Interserve.

More homes at the Nelson Project

“To deliver a scheme that was successful in terms of quality and hitting budget, and being delivered on time, we did a lot of work to make sure the partnership was right,” says Mr Penberthy. Each partner had a financial stake in the project, but there was good faith between the partners too, based in part on existing reputations.

The HCA was aware of the council’s track record in housing delivery, he adds, and the architects have a strong reputation locally. And like the homes themselves, the success of the scheme was built on strong foundations – made possible by the solidity of the partnership behind it. “It was about those conversations,” says Mr Penberthy. “It was about spending time beforehand with the community, developers and builders, working out how you are going to do things and getting people on board. It has been our intention to do as much as we can [before construction begins] so that we can deliver homes quickly.”

Mr Carter says: “It’s one of the drivers for our Plan for Homes [the council’s commitment to deliver 5,000 homes by 2021]. It’s about increasing the number of homes and it’s about quality, but it’s about accelerating their delivery as well.”

Why mess with a winning formula? The partnership behind the Nelson Project has worked so well in delivering these homes that it is working on a new self-build scheme that will include family homes for veterans. The development, for which a site in the north of the city has been identified, is at the pre-application stage and work is expected to begin later this year.

Apple Tree Court

Scheme: Apple Tree Court, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire
Contractor: Sherborne Homes
Client: Various
Details: Eight one, two and three-bedroom homes
Cost: £540,000
Build time: Seven months, beginning May 2014

Is the rush to ramp up the speed of housing delivery having an adverse effect on the quality of new homes?

Last year, a survey by the Local Government Association revealed how one in 10 buyers of new homes were dissatisfied with their property, while one in six would not recommend their builder to a friend. Crucially, the survey also found that at current building rates, new builds will need to stand for 2,000 years if housing demand is to be met.

In other words, any reduction in the quality of new homes as a result of the drive to boost their numbers could be hugely counterproductive.

Innovative materials and building methods that allow faster builds without any sacrifice in the quality of the finished product could be part of the solution.

Together with his father Nick, Harry Sherborne runs Cheltenham-based construction company Sherborne Homes. In 2014, the firm was commissioned to build its first scheme for a housing association: eight family homes in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. Construction began in May 2014 and was completed in just seven months – something Harry Sherborne attributes in part to his decision to use H+H’s thin-joint system as the main building method.

“The increased size of the blocks is an advantage,” says Mr Sherborne. “You are laying one-and-a-half [H+H] blocks compared to a standard breeze block. And the thin-joint system is so quick, you can just keep building – your bottom course is dry within an hour, which means you can keep ploughing on.

“When it dries, it’s rock hard – it’s 100% stronger than sand and cement. You wouldn’t have the joint breaking – the block would break if anything. It’s very robust.”

As well as speeding up the build, this method of construction results in a home that performs well in terms of its energy efficiency; the U-value of a finished and plastered exterior wall (the U-value is a measure of how much heat is lost through a particular material) is just 0.15W/m2k. To put that into perspective, current building regulations stipulate a maximum U-value of 0.3W/m2k for the exterior walls of new homes.

“The blocks are energy efficient and there are no gaps between them,” says Mr Sherborne. “People see that, and they see the Standard Assessment Procedure reading for the new homes and are happy to use [this building method].”

Mr Sherborne and his father have been building homes this way for the past 10 years – although never, prior to Apple Tree Court, for a housing association. Mr Sherborne claims his use of the thin-joint system meant his firm was able to deliver homes of a higher quality.

“It would have cost me more to change to a lower specification,” he says. “I use this for all my builds.”

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