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Berwickshire Housing Association – Another year of progress

In the 12 months since Construction Industry News last caught up with Alan Hobbett, Project Manager at Berwickshire Housing Association, the organisation has been continuing to maximise the benefits of using modular construction.

“We’ve moved ahead with the two developments that we spoke about previously using modular building methods,” explains Mr Hobbett. “That has proven to be very successful, although we have had some delays due to third parties as opposed to delays deriving from the type of construction. We’re certainly very pleased in terms of quality. The fact that most of the work is carried out in advance in a factory environment means that there’s a consistency of quality that’s difficult to achieve onsite. We’ve been very pleased with that. We’re due to complete the projects by the end of May and we are actually continuing the next phase of modular development with another 16 houses, so we’re progressing on that basis.

“The crucial factor behind the progress we’ve been making on the modular buildings has been the relationship with the contractor. Again the method of procurement was slightly different in this case. It was akin to a design and build but the land was sold and bought back on completion. The fundamental to the success of that project was the design process and the fact that the requirements of the association were closely considered and followed in the design process. Secondly, it was the ongoing relationship and although we have no direct control over the process we have been kept in close contact with the developer to ensure that everything is in order and has been completed in accordance with expectation. Relationships are absolutely fundamental to that.”

Last year Mr Hobbett discussed Berwickshire HA’s aspiration of installing photo-voltaics across a significant proportion of its stock. That programme has now commenced, although again there were certain delays due to third party funding issues. “We have around 100 or so installations already completed and another 650 to go, which for us is quite a significant development. Adston (UK) Ltd have again been the contractor and the ongoing relationship we have developed with them has paid dividends, particularly in terms of helping to overcome the challenges that cropped up.

“The biggest issues have been centred on the grid and requirements for grid reinforcement substations on both sites that were previously were not anticipated. This has since been overcome. Also, on one of the projects there was a delay arising from the water connection so the approval of Scottish Water for the supply. This wasn’t a capacity issue it was an issue around design, which took a considerable time to conclude. This is now in place but both of those impacted on programme. They were the major challenges. We were able to work around those and Adston were able to play their part. Again this was where our close working relationships came into play to help overcome the issues. The relationships with those third parties were also key as we were able to have conversations with Scottish Water and Scottish Power Energy Networks and that was beneficial as well. It was very much a partnership approach. I know it’s a well-worn term but it was certainly the case here.”

With momentum building and excellent working relationships in place, Berwickshire Housing Association is now looking at its future development programme. “Being a registered social landlord in Scotland we work to a strategic housing investment programme that’s agreed between the Scottish Government and the local authority. We have our priority projects identified within that. Our requirement now is to ensure that ongoing development programme so we will actually be going out to tender and our approach will be to combine different developments together in that tendering process. We would see ourselves following very much the model that we developed for the initial two developments with Adston in that regard. I’m very confident that Adston will be one of the parties that will be tendering for that work, although it will be an open tender exercise.

“The crucial factor behind the progress we’ve been making on the modular buildings has been the relationship with the contractor. Again the method of procurement was slightly different in this case. It was akin to a design and build but the land was sold and bought back on completion.”

Alan Hobbett, Project Manager

“As we clock up these projects with each passing development the process does become that bit easier. Once our tenants take occupation we will clearly be looking to receive feedback from them because whilst we’re very confident that the buildings will perform well from an energy perspective, and we’ve worked closely with our housing management staff to ensure any issues we’ve had with other developments in terms of the finished product, it’s only when you’ve had tenants living in the properties over a prolonged period that you’re going to get the feedback we need. This information will then be used to inform any future developments. We will be liaising closely with the tenants going forward to assess their satisfaction levels.

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“In the current climate it’s more important than ever before to have properties that are affordable to tenants with regards to running costs and fuels costs. As a consequence any homes that we build now will be constructed to very high energy-efficient standards, what the Scottish Government refers to as the Greener Standard. This directly impacts upon affordability in terms of reducing electricity consumption. Likewise with the PV, the incentive to the housing association is all about addressing issues of fuel poverty, reducing costs to tenants. This was a crucial incentive.

“One interesting aspect of the PV work is that we’ve done that with a third party so we don’t own the equipment, we lease the roof space to the company and they own, install and maintain the equipment. Because of this arrangement they receive a return from the feed-in tariff, the UK Government subsidy. This is an interesting arrangement because it means that that company has a long-term interest in maximising the efficiency of those installations, which concurs with our long-term objective of minimising costs to tenants. It was an interesting approach from our point of view.

“Another noteworthy aspect centres on the way the funds have been raised. Oakapple Berwickshire, which is a joint venture, decided to work with a company called Abundance Generation, which is a crowd-funding organisation. It’s therefore involved some thinking outside the box and as a result there’s been a significant amount of interest from other housing associations in both the PV programme and the modular build. I’m very confident that others will follow.”

“It’s great that others are now recognising the benefits of the approach we’ve helped developed but any such venture where you’re effectively the guinea pig there is an element of risk even though we were careful to carry out full diligence responsibly, which gave us the confidence to proceed and help mitigate any risk. That said, it’s only when a project is complete and fully up and running that anyone can be certain of its success. It is gratifying that everything has worked out as planned.

“Our wind development is another initiative that we’ve been working on for a while and this is also progressing. We hope to be in a position later in the summer to begin construction works on that with a view to the wind farm being completed in the spring of next year. This is certainly an exciting development for us and the income we can raise from that directly will allow us to build more houses as we seek to further meet the housing need in Berwickshire. It’s an important project to us.

“There are a number of options out there but I feel we’ve been quite focused and at the end of the day it’s all about risk. We are currently concentrating on this one wind project and with the PV initiative involving the leasing to another party there is no direct risk or direct liability to ourselves, which is why that model is attractive to us.”

With plenty to keep it occupied moving forward, Mr Hobbett has clear goals that he hopes to achieve in the next 12 months. “I would have hoped that the two main housing developments will have been completed with the tenants having moved in and that we would also have completed the next modular development of 16 units, in addition to being in the process of building further housing, again most likely utilising modular construction. I would also hope that the wind farm would be approaching completion and that we’d have successfully installed the 750 PV systems. If we can tick all these boxes by this time next year I’d be absolutely delighted.

“The key to realising these goals is building on the relationships we’ve put in place and ensuring that we continue to link up with the right partners. It’s very easy to have a good partnership when things are going well but it’s not quite so straightforward when problems emerge and that’s when the strength of the relationship is truly tested. For the PV programme we’ve been working with for over three years now before the first one was put up and with Adston we began talking to them getting on for three years ago as well. It’s all about identifying the right partners and sticking with them.”

Given the progress that Berwickshire HA has achieved recently it is clear that it has already acquired a great knack of getting the right partners and reaping the benefits of those relationships.