Edwina Mullins

Edwina Mullins

I am currently planning my own house build.  I have the plot and outline planning permission granted. I don’t have bats or newts.  

During the research phase of this project, I attended webinars, show homes, and read endless editions of ‘Build It’ magazine. There is some innovation happening in construction, but not as much as I thought there would be. Considering the Grand Designs programme is 21 years old, I thought more people would be building with giant straw bale bricks and creating amazing sculptures for posterity with their architectural plans. Obviously, time + money is a barrier, but sustainable innovation shouldn’t have to be expensive, and it should be able to be scalable to the mass market.

What is the problem I am trying to solve?

Within the self-build market, there is a big move to timber-framed homes. Due to off-site construction techniques, these houses can be quicker to build than brick/block and are better for the environment. When choosing suppliers, quicker and more eco are the kind of options I like.  In the UK, 6% of new builds are self-builds, but if suppliers were to launch a relevant product in Germany, the self-build rate is 30% so that’s a far more attractive market.

In other countries, local councils buy up agricultural land, prepare an outline plan for the site, develop the infrastructure, and then sell individual plots, all financed by the price difference between land with and without planning permission. Instead, British local councils only earmark entire sites for development. Formerly agricultural or brownfield land is then usually sold as a single huge site directly by its owners to a single developer, who then takes care of the necessary road and supply infrastructure, and often is required to pay ‘Section 106’ money to the community to pay for community assets. No one complains as they get a new playpark and perhaps a few miles of cycle path that the council couldn’t otherwise afford to construct. What this means is that self-build projects are often very bespoke one-offs that rely on either a big budget or an owner who has time to carve the straw bales themselves. For average Jo’s like me, it’s not as easy as it could be.  Whilst there is some innovation with the larger scale manufacturing end of the industry for example using IoT to enable better processes for offsite build parts (timber frames and SIPs), there is very little in the consumer-end of the market. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were means for more individuals to build their dream homes?

Why are self builds important?

New houses in the UK currently being constructed have pitifully low build standards if you care strongly about the environment or quality standards. Often, for example, they have ‘just’ the legally required amount of insulation. Acoustically that’s bad, not great for eco-credentials, and it’s lazy.    Large halls are fashionable at the moment to give the feeling of space, and in my opinion, to hide that the actual house and room sizes are quite small. The eco-standards of new UK builds are lower than in comparable countries and developers of course have a pressure to return decent profits.

In Cambridge, UK, the average new build turns a profit for a large-scale developer of £70k each. And we have a target of 33,000 new homes in the next 5 years (the reality is far higher). Who doesn’t like that market, and where is the incentive to build better quality homes for less profit? It’s sadly not coming from Governments, and it is not coming from consumers either who seem to accept the new norm for housing. So, we will continue to see poorly constructed, high-density developments.    However, a self-builder very often doesn’t need to think about instant profit so there is scope for the quality of the build to be better. They are also generally building to live in long term, so the details matter.   The more self builds, theoretically the more net/low carbon projects and healthier neighbourhoods.

Where is the real step change in construction? How to frame innovation

As with every industry, there is a responsibility to change – to evolve whilst responding to commercial, environmental and social factors.   How is the construction industry evolving to stay relevant beyond incremental steps like ventilation systems and project management systems?   In today’s world, companies can think beyond the constraints of their current products: ie a window frame company may need to be open to offering online finance that enables customers to purchase their premium products, following the new car market model. Or they may need to adjust their window product to open/close automatically dependant on timings, heat, and moisture levels. They, therefore, need to become savvy in IoT, sensing technologies, and digital banking APIs in addition to their core industry.   This is a massive step from their primary competencies but could result in longer-term stability and success. And of course, initially, there may need to be incentives at Government level for sustainable R&D.

Another factor is that homeowners need to reduce their energy bills (cheaper + environmental concerns), so that same window company needs to evolve their product accordingly. That is great for incremental innovation but how can a window company employ real innovation in this area? Why is a window limited to a window shape - can whole walls be windows that move with the sun to optimise heat and air, all within an IOT enabled frame? This disrupts the insulation, plasterboard, and utilities markets.

In a world where window manufacturers sell "transparent intelligent walls”, perhaps the window frames are structural or an ideal place to house control fixtures for wifi, utilities, voice search. Plus your consumer needs to download your app for this to work, meaning your one-off self-builder has a far longer customer lifecycle.    You could have patch upgrades for non-structural walls that adjust room dimensions, change digital art, the list is endless and exciting. The construction industry, as with all industries, needs to appreciate their past, but not be limited by it. And Government needs to provide a framework for change.

Whilst my thoughts of IoT enabled windows is an expensive option for the average self-builder of today, technology needs to be exciting, then become normal and affordable at scale. What is the key target for all the development we are seeing in the UK?  We should be aiming for best-in-class standards. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on this – and perhaps you will change the way I build my house?!