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Building by numbers

You jump when they say jump
And you don’t ask how high
’cause painting by numbers they know you’ll get by 

You jump when they say jump
And you don’t ask how high
’cause painting by numbers they know you’ll get by 

 

I missed this somehow when it was first announced – but it’s been recently flagged up to me by Craig Webb the Editor of ProSales, the US equivalent of BMJ in the States.

 

“This”, refers to the multi-million pound investment by insurance and pension giants Legal & General. In February, they announced that their division Legal & General Homes had signed a long-term lease with Logicor on a 550,000 sq ft warehouse near Leeds.

 

The aim, they said was to be to open the largest home-building factory in Europe in a “bid to shake up the UK housing market, which is characterised by chronic undersupply of homes”

Legal & General Homes’ own website promises to “do for housing what Henry Ford did for the modern automotive industry. We will deliver a new solution to the problems we face in the UK in terms of a shortage of suitable, affordable housing.  We’ll manufacture better quality, more energy and time efficient and lower cost housing to rival conventional methods.”

 

Eeek.

 

The reason this was flagged up to me as that Eric Dean, the innovation and production director for Legal & General gave a presentation in the States to the FEA 2016 Forest Products Forum.

 

Key to the L&G plans is cross-laminated timber. Indeed, the 580,000 square-foot factory houses the biggest CLT press in the world — capable of creating 100,000 cubic meters of CLT a year. The ready-to-assemble sections of the cross-laminated timber homes will be delivered like flat-packed Ikea furniture.

 

Dean told the Forum that local authorities would be willing to lease L&G land cheaply over 30 years in exchange for building infrastructure such as roads and schools and – crucially – affordable housing alongside the rest of the houses.

 

At the moment, according to Dean’s presentation, they are talking about being able to produce 3,000 home a year which, is about 12% of the minimum number we need to be building to meet our housing needs. So, revolutionary but not changing the world. Yet.

 

 And while, Dean admitted his plan is threatening to the nation’s construction trades, he said the housing crunch offers them a glimmer of hope, at least in the short term.

 

“They’ve either got to on board with us or get left behind,” he said. “But we’ve got such a massive housing shortage in the UK, there’s room for both us right now.”

We have, of course, heard all this before. 20 years ago the UK government was pushing for homes to be built in factories and it was all going to be timber-construction, delivered straight to site and bye-bye builders merchants, adios aircrete and hello masses of houses to solve the fact that we aren’t building enough.

 

That was when we were building even more than we are now, by the way!

 

The problems with housing provision in the UK are more complicated than the rather simplistic solutions that the L&G Homes website outlines – there are issues surrounding planning and also the cost. This isn’t just related to the cost of building traditionally on site rather than in a factory, but also with house prices.

 

There is also a bit of an issue to be taken with L&G’s idea of taking labour out of the equation and therefore making the process easier and quicker. That’s labour that still needs to have a job in order to be able to afford these lovely new houses. Of course, if the worst fears about Brexit come to pass then most of our construction subbies may well be on their way back to foreign shores so we might need all the help we can get.

 

Revolutionising the way we build homes? Not sure. Making a useful contribution to easing the housing supply problems? Probably.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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