August 5, 2021

Could modular home production replace car production in the UK?

Joseph Daniels, Chief Executive of Modular Homes provider Project Etopia, explains how modular home production could replace car production in the UK, becoming one of the nation’s biggest exports in the process.

Manufacturing in the UK remains a growing industry, directly employing 2.6m people and the UK currently ranks ninth among the largest manufacturing nations of the world1. However, motor manufacturers appear to be in a much more vulnerable position with the instability of Brexit coinciding with a move by key auto industry leaders such as Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Ford, and Nissan to cut UK jobs and ponder leaving Britain altogether.

Yet, this wouldn’t be the first time that had happened in Britain. The nation’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry famously collapsed from production of 134 vessels in 1976 to just four ships in 20112.

It was in the wake of the disappearance of that industry that car manufacturing came to the fore, employing swathes of workers. Honda’s Swindon plant alone employs 3,500 people.

Honda is due to close the plant in 2021 but it could be that history is about to repeat itself all over again, with yet another manufacturing era filling the vacuum cars leave behind. The only difference is this one isn’t going to involve transport but homes — modular homes.

While one major industry may be leaving, its workers — possessing an ingrained awareness of the demands of the production line and a tremendous set of transferable skills — are not. We shouldn’t waste them.

Modular housing is the next obvious manufacturing territory for Britain. Why?

When we talk about the lack of starter homes and affordable properties, our minds don’t necessarily wonder from these shores. But they must.

This problem of a lack of affordable housing stock hampers many major economies and the move to modular is taking place globally, not confined to just the UK or Western nations. Countries such as India and Germany are planning to build millions of homes within the next five years. India has pledged to build 10m homes in urban areas by 2020, Germany has pledged to build 1.5m homes by 2022 at a rate of 340,000 units per year.

Sweden is another great example of the urgency with which the housing problem is being addressed. Under its ‘Good housing for All’ mandate, Sweden produces twice as many homes per 1,000 inhabitants than in the UK despite the country having the third highest construction costs in Europe.

Project Etopia visited India and Namibia in February to explore the possibility of building high quality shanty town replacements and there is huge interest in how British-led modular projects could be produced locally, bringing money into the community. The power and reputation of Britain’s manufacturing dynasty abroad should not be underestimated.

The combination of the implied quality of ‘Made in UK’, together with the way this type of housing delivery makes it much easier for commissioners to guarantee a set result for a predictable price, is likely to encourage policy makers to import the UK’s modular technology so local workers around the globe can assemble homes themselves.

The modular build systems, which are panelised to allow fast and easy construction, would be produced locally but these factories would be outposts of British companies, quickly spreading their tentacles worldwide because of their IP and expertise. This is the future of British manufacturing.

For those countries racing to welcome UK modular firms, there will be less wastage, as panelised systems are largely plug-and-play, there is less overtime because those who assemble these homes are drilled in the techniques involved, and this makes the build schedules of modular homes remarkably predictable. There is less environmental impact from site traffic because workers are not on-site for very long, and weather and congestion are less of a problem because so much of the building process involves assembly rather than pouring concrete.

Interest from India in this type of solution is particularly high. There is palpable excitement that something with low development risk can provide so many homes, so quickly. And during my visit, there was recognition that the skills and expertise required for this kind of project cannot be replicated quick enough domestically in many nations. In Britain we have heritage in advanced manufacturing and, though it’s easy to take that for granted in the birthplace of the agricultural and then industrial revolutions, that really matters.

Joseph Daniels

Etopia alone won’t be able to cope with this international feeding frenzy either. It is not just an opportunity for us but the whole industry. We opened a factory in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, last month (March) and even if we opened one new factory a week, we would still barely scratch the surface of the opportunity presented by India’s housing crisis, let alone the rest of the world’s.

Etopia’s opportunity — and Britain’s too — is to allow the country’s manufacturing future to evolve once more and fill the vacuum being left by the car just as the car once filled the void left by shipping. It may take a decade but it is within the UK’s power to become the world’s modular production line.