Unlocking the Potential of Offsite Timber Construction in the UK

Alex Goodfellow discusses the offsite opportunity and the benefits of structural timber sector

The dust has now settled following the launch of the HousingWhite Paper when Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, outlined what he called ‘the bold radical vision for the housing market’. As the industry devours and disseminates the content, many construction commentators have come to the conclusion that there are no new exciting ideas or big surprises but a change of direction can be extracted with some careful sifting. One of the key themes to emerge is the Government’s commitment to support offsite construction to facilitate growth in building homes to meet demand.

Through discussion, debate and demonstration, the Government appears to have made the connection between construction and manufacturing and we are therefore poised to see the potential within the ‘Industrial Strategy’ for offsite construction to play a significant part in delivering infrastructure, schools, healthcare and housing. We will do so through demonstrating the benefits of offsite construction and the ease of exploiting offsite technology to facilitate growth and overcome the skills crisis that has been much discussed following the publication of the recent Farmer Review (Modernise or Die).

The most significant measure that Government has introduced is raising the profile of offsite construction – putting it on the agenda at the highest level and this has had a significant impact in recent months. The Government needs to remain consistent with this message, continue to support the offsite industry as we expand the use of offsite and demonstrate the tangible benefits to increase volume now and for the future. There is an old adage about ‘taking advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime in the lifetime of the opportunity!’

At the Structural Timber Association, we firmly believe that offsite timber construction is the only way to reach the specified target of one million homes by 2020. With four out of five new homes in Scotland built using structural timber and much of the housing volume in Canada, the US and Europe being structural timber – we know that offsite timber solutions deliver. In the main it will address many Government concerns associated with public procurement of housing including speed of build, environmental impact, lifetime energy efficiency and cost performance. These factors are not only of benefit to Government plans but to the wider construction industry. Cost savings, speed of build, faster return on capital outlay, reduction in waste, improved health and safety – are just some of the benefits of offsite timber construction. Add to this the unrivalled capacity and availability of materials within a robust supply chain combined with a sector that is quick to respond and it’s a clear and easy choice.

Innovation in the structural timber product range has broadened the appeal, driven by intelligent and integrated construction solutions, including closed panel timber systems, structural insulated panel systems and volumetric modular options.

As the Government pledges support for small and medium size developers, as well as initiatives for self and custom builders and creating a better and more accessible planning system with more land released, it will certainly have an impact but only time will tell how it works in practice.

The Government has made some significant statements in recent months regarding the critical role that offsite construction technology has to play in solving the ‘housing crisis’. All of the statements, from the Housing Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government point towards ‘accelerated construction’ using ‘advanced manufacturing’ techniques.

We can demonstrate how easy, practical and efficiently projects can be completed, having a direct impact on transforming communities, while conveying the dynamic and fast moving pace of the sector and the excitement that can be engendered when delivering innovative construction methods. The Structural Timber Association and our members have a major role to play. We are geared for capacity, have the skills and materials to respond quickly and the experience to create a world-class offsite manufacturing sector in the UK.

As an organisation established to influence legislation and support the overall objectives of the structural timber sector, the STA is engaging with industry, Government and manufacturers. At the end of February, we hosted an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) event on behalf of the Confederation of Timber Industries (CTI) at the House of Commons. The event centred around how the structural timber industry can support the housing and growth initiative with a particular focus on Garden Towns.

Structural timber offsite construction is the most effective, proven solution to meeting housing demand – was the clear message delivered at this meeting. The industry has a current capacity of 100,000 units per year and could easily scale up to 150,000 given the right policy frameworks.

Meeting Chair, Ian Paisley MP said this is a powerful message and expressed his support, stating that it is clear that the timber industry has proven capacity and ability to deliver solutions to the housing crisis – members of the APPG, will do our best to help you achieve this.

The time is right for the construction industry to embrace innovative offsite timber technology and develop better buildings at a rapid rate to meet Government targets, to overcome the shortfall in housing stock, while delivering energy efficient buildings in a cost-effective quality manner.

With 30+ years in the housebuilding industry, Alex Goodfellow, Chairman of the Structural Timber Association (STA) and Group Managing Director of Stewart Milne Timber Systems, has a passion for driving construction within the UK through the optimisation of offsite construction and structural timber. As a former Chief Architect and Technical Director, Alex believes that much of the Government targets for housing growth can be met through offsite construction.
For more information, please see www.timbersystems.stewartmilne.com

As offsite timber solutions are gaining traction across the industry, the STA’s mission is to enhance quality and drive product innovation through technical guidance and research, underpinned by a members’ quality standard assessment – STA Assure. This scheme offers reassurances to the construction community that our members meet or even exceed current legislation and regulatory requirements.
For more information, please see www.structuraltimber.co.uk