In an interview with Development Finance Today, Joseph Daniels, CEO at Project Etopia (pictured above), discussed the misconceptions surrounding modular building and the future of the modern construction method.
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You have just launched your new modular housing factory in Cheshire. What one thing about the factory do you think would surprise the property development industry?
Many developers build modular homes within the factories themselves, and then deliver them fully built to the site. There are logistical issues with this, as lorries can only deliver a few houses at a time. We do things differently, creating the panels needed for our homes in the factory, then delivering them to the site where the homes are constructed. This is quicker and far more flexible as designs can be adapted on site if necessary, and changes made to the layout, look or size of a property. Our houses do not come out of a box — they are far more adaptable because of our panelised system.
What is the long-term vision for Project Etopia?
We’ve set no ceiling on our ambitions, and our first goal is to be building 21,500 homes a year by 2025. This will put an enormous dent in the housing crisis, and will provide high-quality, eco-friendly homes with smart technology to tens of thousands of people. Key to our vision is sustainability and social integration — essentially, we want to take the use of integrated technology for living to the next level in homes that have a smaller environmental footprint. They are scalable and affordable like never before and our modular homes are not just for Britain either. We have a global vision that involves Etopia factories all over the world, building new communities in areas that, historically, have poor-quality housing and are crying out for millions of new homes.
Describe what difficulties there are in the market to get funding for modular developments and why you believe this is the case.
There have been some negative perceptions of modular housing, usually built on outdated ideas of how post-war prefabs looked and functioned. There has been a lack of confidence from investors and lenders in the past, who have been concerned about the longevity of modular housing. But, as more are being built, the benefits are being proven and the perception is changing. The government is starting to show its own endorsement for modular homes, with Homes England funding now going towards large projects using off-site construction.
What common misconceptions around modular construction are you most keen to dispel?
I want to dispel the myth that modular housing is not of high quality. Modular manufacturing techniques create very attractive homes, which offer a level of flexibility not offered with bricks-and-mortar properties. It is vital people recognise that they are not cheap imitations of houses, but instead can offer technical benefits unmatched by traditional building methods. For example, our panels have better thermal efficiency, with a superior U-value of 0.13 compared with 0.16 for a typical, well-insulated wall in a new-build, brick property.
Are you seeing more demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly homes and do you think this will become a staple in property development in the next decade?
The winds have definitely turned towards building more environmentally friendly homes. Homeowners are looking to reduce energy bills, and so are attracted to solar panels and energy storage systems. Moving forward, the goal will be not only to create sustainable, environmentally friendly properties, but to ensure the building process itself does not have an environmental cost. Modular housing leads the way in this area, as traditional developments can take years to complete while an off-site project of the same scale can be finished in a matter of months. This means there is less noise pollution and HGV traffic going to and from the site.
What advice would you give to developers right now who are looking at off-site construction?
I would advise them to never let standards slip. With modular housebuilding coming into its own and all developers keen to ensure their houses are free of problems, they will quickly see the benefits that modular brings, in particular, the continuity that a panelised system brings to the quality of the build. Modular housing offers a great alternative to traditional builds with huge flexibility and the same or better quality.
Do you think modular housing will become the prominent form of housebuilding in the future?
There is a place for both traditional models and off-site construction, but the growth of modular will definitely outpace traditional bricks and mortar in the coming years and come to be the primary building method in the next decade.
Do you think we could build 300,000 homes a year using off-site construction?
There is no reason why we cannot reach that stage. Car manufacturers are leaving Britain, but house manufacturing can fill that void. There is a growing amount of investment in modular housing and, once the benefits are proven, this is only going to grow. We should all be ambitious with our targets so that we can solve the housing crisis.
If you weren’t a developer, what would you be doing?
I’ve developed my own smart home system, so I’d probably be spending all my time developing new technologies that can make a difference to people’s lives one way or another.