Building for the future

International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management

ISSN: 1741-0401

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



(2004), "Building for the future", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 53 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Building for the future

In a modern factory beside the M6 motorway in Birmingham, UK, new homes are literally coming out of the oven.

The Castle Bromwich factory is the headquarters of Space4, a company set up three years ago by Westbury Homes to build timber-framed panels for houses. It is the largest off-site production facility in the UK and has the capacity to supply 6,000 new homes a year.

It takes just one hour to make all the panels for the inner walls and floors of one house by injecting a tough cement particle skin with a fire resistant, thermally insulating foam called phenolic. The panels, factory fitted with doors and windows, are then loaded onto a lorry and delivered to the development site, where they can be assembled by crane in a day and a half – in contrast to the three weeks a team of three or four bricklayers might take.

At Space4, 60 people can produce 60 houses each week. “There’s obviously a huge advantage in terms of the noise and the health and safety issues on-site,” says Space4 business development manager, James McDonald.

The location of the factory is no accident. The decline in the automotive production industry has been a ready source of appropriately skilled labour.

Off-site manufacture (the term “pre-fabrication” has been dropped in the UK since it has connotations of cheap post-War “pre-fab” housing) is seen by many in the house-building industry as a way to improve efficiency, cope with skills shortages and achieve higher quality control in the future.

The Barrett organisation has its own operation called Terrapin, and other housebuilders are looking closely at the Westbury-owned system. “A number of the major housebuilders have already used our products and, next year, we’re expecting several hundred orders from other housebuilders,” says McDonald. Much of the factory’s initial output was reserved for Westbury’s own developments, but other customers include a number of housing associations – the Housing Corporation has just approved 17 of its designs.

Off-site manufacture, widely used in the commercial property market, has been hampered on the residential side by the UK’s low use of timber-frame building techniques. Only 15 per cent of UK houses are built this way, while in the USA and Scandinavia, the figure is higher than 90 per cent. Costs work out roughly the same and there is even a small advantage over traditional block and brick, once factors such as faster completion and reduced wastage are taken into account, says McDonald.

Related articles