5 minutes with Andy Higson – Strategic Partnerships Director, Saint Gobain Off-Site Solutions

Collingwood’s Head of Built Environment, Mark Goldsmith, has spoken with a large number of offsite leaders over the past few years.  Having worked with individual businesses under the Saint Gobain umbrella throughout his 16 years managing building product headhunts, he was introduced to Strategic Partnerships Director at their Off-site Solutions business, Andy Higson. Mark was keen to understand how their new venture was unfolding.

Here’s what they discussed:

Mark:  Saint Gobain has been around the offsite arena for several years – a lot of the bigger manufacturers have driven business from modular manufacturers using their materials as part of the overall solution.  Saint Gobain has taken this a stage further, though.  When was Off-Site Solutions born and what makes up the solution sold to the various markets?

Andy: Saint-Gobain Off-Site Solutions was formed in early 2019 and comprises a number of existing Saint-Gobain brands, along with some more recent acquisitions of off-site manufacturing businesses. There are five individual brands making up the division:

  •        Pasquill
  •        International Timber
  •        Roofspace Solutions
  •        Scotframe
  •        Steelframe

We provide full building structures for low-rise housing, through to multi-occupancy buildings up to 14 storeys from across the brands, as well as components & sub-assemblies to further improve the construction site build programme. Our structural systems cover everything from closed-panel timber frame, light gauge steel frame, through to large format concrete elements in conjunction with timber cassettes for floors & room-in-roofs. All of which fit within the latest govt. classifications of MMC categories 2 (2D primary structures), 3 (Non systemised structural components) & 5 (Non-structural assemblies and sub-assemblies).

The solutions element comes from our ability to combine systems to suit client, and project requirements. We are system agnostic, providing the best-fit, most appropriate off-site solution through a coordinated approach. We look to simplify the supply chain process where we can, making it easier for the client/developer to work with us than a more conventional fragmented supply chain.

Mark:  And you’re primarily focusing around the local authority, housing association and residential, housing developer markets, aren’t you?  How do the solutions you provide differ from one market to the next?

Andy: We focus on many different markets as individual off-site brands, including education & health sectors, but residential does make up a significant percentage of our combined turnover. Residential to us covers self & custom build, regional developers, national house builders, local authorities, housing associations, apartments, care homes, student accommodation.

Solutions do vary from market-to-market in regards to the structural technologies used to meet the building typology, along with specific client requirements, whether they be building performance enhancement, supply chain simplification, package completeness, etc. A key strength of the Off-Site Solutions division, is how we tailor our combined brand approach to deliver best-value against the client brief.

Another key customer for us at Saint-Gobain Off-Site Solutions is the wider off-site industry, many of our existing, and expanding customer base are other off-site manufacturers. This is where our category 3 & 5 MMC activity comes into play, as we become the “out-sourced manufacturer” supply chain partner, delivering components, sub-assemblies, kitting into our customer’s factory for them to assemble, optimising their own manufacturing space and through-put.

Mark:  I’ve spoken with a number of senior figures within social housing of late.  There would seem to be an acceptance, even appetite, for adopting offsite technologies.  How have you latterly found the market’s reaction to Saint Gobain’s offerings?

Andy: The market has been moving this way for some time, and many major residential providers have laid out their intentions clearly for the adoption of off-site methods to deliver additional housing stock, to drive construction efficiency, improve performance and quality.

There are many innovators and early adopters within social housing who are exploring off-site methods on pilot projects, new development schemes across the UK, and some who have the ambition for their own off-site facilities.

It’s worth noting that the use of off-site is nothing new in the UK, this has been done for years within various sub-sectors, including MOD housing, hotels, student accommodation, and mainstream housing. A number of the major nationals provide ~20% of their housing stock via off-site, with many of them using our solutions as a key supply-chain partner.

The social housing market is now embracing this approach, and rightfully so with off-site enabling their key drivers for higher performance levels, better quality, robustness, speed of construction, improving safety on site, and certainty of budget – ultimately providing a better performing asset within a shorter time frame.

Mark: Conversely, certain markets are reluctant to adopt modern methods of construction.  What common themes do you come up against and how are you circumnavigating them?

Andy: To be honest with you, I’ve yet to hit a blocker, and I believe that this is down to our approach to relationships, and our proposition to market. Saint-Gobain is a global organisation, operating out of 67 countries, and we have been around for over 350 years. We have always been heavily focused on innovation in products, systems and services, and how we can combine these to provide best-value to our customer base.

In 2018 we began our global evolution programme “Transform & Grow” which at its essence is about creating a more cohesive global organisation with regional flexibility to suit local markets. There are three common threads running throughout covering Customer Intimacy, Digital Transformation, Simplicity & Agility. It was at this same point the Off-Site Solutions division was born.

I believe that as a result of our long-standing customer relationships, the sheer breadth & depth of the Saint-Gobain offer, along with our growing range of off-site solutions and the flexibility our off-site systems provide, we have a very strong offer to market that resonates in many ways with the majority of clients. The skill then comes in truly understanding what is important to the client, and tailoring the approach accordingly – again, linking back to the Customer Intimacy & Agility elements of Transform & Grow.

Mark:  You’ve been solely focused on offsite as a solution to housing needs in the country since your previous work at British Gypsum in 2011.  What’s your view on how the market has changed during this time and what are the primary drivers to offsite’s uptake?

Andy: Yes, it’s been a long and winding road at times. I feel very fortunate to have been involved in influencing, and helping to drive Saint-Gobain’s off-site strategy over the years. Certainly the last few years have been in a different gear altogether, so we really are primed for action and ready to service our customer’s needs both at site and in the factory environment.

The market has changed considerably in some ways, and little in others. The residential sectors are now embracing off-site technologies to increase volume housing & multi-occupancy unit completions. The drivers remain the same, it’s about increasing efficiency in build programme, labour, along with improving performance and quality – ultimately increasing client/developer certainty.

There is still some aversion to risk within construction, and I’m sure there always will be, but there are enough innovators and early-adopters out there proving project-after-project how off-site manufacturing delivers value & certainty. It’s about building confidence with your supply chain partners and working together from the earliest opportunity, designing out risk from day one.

When you consider the challenges that we now face in the UK relating to the housing stock deficit, in kick-starting construction & manufacturing, whilst ensuring a safe working environment for all, and the productivity challenges this will present – then the use of off-site, I believe, plays an even more critical role.

Mark:  And moving forward, where are you anticipating further growth for the business?

Andy: We are over a year into Transform & Grow, and whilst transformation never really ends, growth is certainly a key focus for Saint-Gobain Off-Site Solutions. We take a balanced view across all markets & customers alike, and our approach is very much to look after our existing customers whilst seeking out new market opportunities.

There will be further development in innovation, I am sure of that, and much of this will be in conjunction with our customer base, under more strategic-partnerships. Our partnership approach is about finding like-minded client/developer partners, with whom we share common values and ambitions – then focussing on delivering mutual value together.

What we have always found is that if you understand your customer’s needs, and work with them to deliver their ambitions, the growth comes through. We already have 22 design centres and 15 manufacturing facilities within our off-site division, with a very strong national coverage, so we have the capacity to grow considerably to meet our customers (old & new) requirements without major investment – so we are in a good place with a strong global foundation and plenty of ambition.

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