In a real coup for our Head of Building Products Mark Goldsmith, Stephen Haigh, Founder of Ecotek Homes and former Director from Your Housing behind the drive to implement six offsite manufacturing facilities, spoke to him about the new venture and more aside.
Mark: Over recent years we have seen a conscious shift from some of the bigger social housing providers becoming more commercially aware. With you coming from the private developer sector, this is exactly what Your Housing did when bringing you in. What key areas have you focussed on in driving this more commercial edge into what was already a successful organisation?
Stephen: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, YHG was already a successful organisation in terms of social housing provision, what I brought was a fresh pair of eyes from outside of the social sector. It enabled me and the group to take stock and look at how we could strengthen the brand by diversification into higher yielding sectors, providing a stable platform for our valuable customer base. Initially, my focus was on the development pipeline and ensuring we built the homes much needed as part of our very successful AHP programme – supporting the team to be able to do this.
Secondly, I had to look at how we could be more self-sufficient, by sweating YHG’s very strong balance sheet as we all know how the level of grant funding has been withdrawn over the last few years – something that isn’t going to be reintroduced at the levels we have seen previously.
Other areas of focus were, of course, innovation by focussing on the modular and off-site manufacturing house building process, the build to rent sector, the private retirement living developments and the development of additional outright sale products – the later generate an income which is fed back into YHG to enable its social provision to continue to thrive and grow.
Mark: Over recent months I have gained great insight from key people within the world of offsite production. One of Your Housing Groups focusses is to become the “New Generation” housing provider. I appreciate that offsite contributes to only a portion of this aim but where does your appetite for offsite production come from and how does it add to this focus?
Stephen: It’s definitely something that has developed over time. If you had asked me 20 years ago what I thought of modular, my answer may have been very different! The statistics which we all read about the traditional construction skills shortages are frightening and these need to be addressed, I think sense has finally prevailed, the modular/offsite production method is something that needs to be taken seriously by the wider sector. We need to build more homes to be able to tackle the deficit, this can’t be done by traditional builds alone. Modular build is the answer in my book, we’re always quick to find fault, rather than to embrace what will be a solution to our housing problem. The speed of delivery, cost reduction, energy efficiency are all key drivers to solving the housing crisis.
To be the “new generation” housing provider it is going to take someone to raise their head above that parapet – Live Verde is that someone!
Mark: You are already rallying around the various local authorities throughout the country, building the fledgeling Live Verde brand. What feedback have you had from the market and what do you perceive to be the key drivers in wanting to use you?
Stephen: First impressions from the sector have been overwhelmingly positive, ever since we announced our joint venture back in December 2016. I am under no illusion that this is where the hard work starts and if we are going to tackle the much-maligned 1 million homes deficit in the UK, actions are going to have to speak louder than words.
All of the local authorities we are in discussions with share my views on modular homes and see the huge benefits the manufacturing process will bring to the housing sector. Building homes are the only way to solve the issues, the differing factor is doing it at scale – building whole developments not just a handful of homes. Modular allows us to do this, quicker and more efficiently than traditionally built homes.
Mark: Clearly you are looking to take this concept nationally from acquiring land, through design, manufacturing, installation and maintenance. With carbon footprint rightly such an ongoing hot topic, how will Live Verde’s manufacturing and supply chain help reduce this?
Stephen: The modular process is by default a much more carbon efficient process, everything is designed and manufactured through a process which has no error for margin. Through this process we are able to control every element, to ensure that the product that comes off the production line is built with precision.
Being able to transport the building to site for construction, using minimum transportation and constructing the property onsite, again cuts down on the carbon footprint against that of a traditionally built property. Team that with energy efficient technologies which are built into the properties. Our aim is to ensure all of our homes are 75% energy independent within five years.
Mark: Given your focus on building six manufacturing sites, how are you looking to combat the (famous) lack of skills available before pressing the button on production?
Stephen: The skill shortage within the house building sector is much talked about and there are some scary statistics released recently. Mark Farmer’s report into the skills shortage has really opened everyone’s eyes to the problem and the urgency with which it needs addressing. Our six factories are key to closing that gap by introducing new semi-skilled operatives from other sectors, into the production of homes.
Key is recruiting employees from the local economy, with local connections giving them a vested interest in the product and its success.
Mark: Upon joining Your Housing you coined the brand Peachtree for the organisation's retirement rental market. How did the name come about and how are you tackling what is a relatively mature market?
Stephen: Peachtree was one of those concepts I identified early as a growth area for the Group. YHG is one of the UK’s leaders in retirement living accommodation and services – Peachtree was the next rung on the ladder for YHG.
Peachtree means longevity in Chinese and is such a strong message when it comes to the retirement living market. We all know the stats about our ageing population, but what we so often fail to understand is that the mentality and drive of our older population are actually getting younger – 55 is not old!! It’s more about a lifestyle choice, downsizing from their large family home to be able to live their retirement as they had always dreamt – whether that is in a luxury semi-rural development or a 30-storey tower in the heart of a city – safe to say we are tackling this mature market head-on!
STEPHEN HAIGH - FOUNDER OF ECOTEK