The future of housebuilding can be seen in a former plastic windows factory on the outskirts of Birmingham.
In a draughty warehouse the size of four football pitches, Persimmon, Britain's biggest homebuilder, has set up an automated production line that can produce one house an hour.
About 90 workers, many of whom came from the nearby Jaguar Land Rover assembly plant at Castle Bromwich, are churning out the timber-framed panels that form the shell of the new homes.
Amid the deafening roar of staple guns and rolling steel conveyor belts, the completed panels are stacked in 10ft-high piles. They are then forklifted into lorries bound for building sites across the country.
Once the panels are on site, construction workers can assemble the exterior of an average 1,200 sq ft new home in one day. Persimmon said the system speeds up the total building time from 12-14 weeks to 8-10 weeks.
And now the housing market is showing renewed signs of life, with prices rising in January for the seventh month in a row, Persimmon is optimistic that this division, called Space 4, can give it an edge over rivals.
Tough government energy targets, which require all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016, and a wish to respond quickly to volatile economic conditions have convinced Persimmon that Space 4 is a key part of its future.
The facility has already helped to create a string of schemes, including an apartment block shaped like a boat at Ipswich Marina and a social housing scheme at Hampton Vale in Peterborough.
Mike Farley, chief executive of Persimmon, which has a market value of £1.3 billion, said: "Higher energy standards and the ability to turn the construction tap on and off at a faster rate mean the pendulum has now swung firmly in its direction."
The company inherited Space 4 after its £643m takeover of Westbury, a smaller rival, in November 2005.
At first, Persimmon had its doubts about the division. The York-based company made no secret of the fact that it regarded Space 4 as a "non-core" operation and its future appeared to be hanging in the balance. Back in 2005, Persimmon, which is named after a horse that won the 1896 Derby and St Leger for the Prince of Wales, was focused on gobbling up land and hiring enough sales staff to keep pace with the voracious demand for housing. But it gave Space 4 a stay of execution and the facility was retained.
Three years later the housing market crashed and in 2008 housebuilding volumes in Britain slumped to levels not seen since the second world war.
Far from knocking out a house an hour, Space 4 built only 1,000 homes all year.
Persimmon agreed deals to use Space 4 to help build homes for small social-housing providers and even to construct nursing homes to see it through the downturn.
Last year, business picked up and Space 4 created about 2,000 homes, equivalent to about 20% of Persimmon's total output. This year that figure is expected to rise to about 2,500 as the popularity of timber-frame construction grows and the housing market continues to stabilise.
In 1990 timber-frame buildings accounted for only 8% of new housing in the UK. By 2008 that figure had risen to 25%. Persimmon said the number is still rising amid growing concern about green issues - timber is regarded as a sustainable resource.
For now, most of the homes produced by Space 4 come under the category of affordable housing. Getting these homes built quickly has a cost benefit because Persimmon, like its rivals, gets paid by local authorities in stages, according to how far construction has advanced.
Over the next few years, Farley expects Space 4 to play a bigger role in its private housing. It can be used to build show homes when Persimmon starts marketing a site.
Meanwhile, because the external structure of a house can be erected within hours, and covered in a waterproof skin, plumbers and electricals have a safe, dry environment in which to work, even if it is raining or snowing outside. Moreover, the automated production system, which uses WEINMANN technology from Germany, means there are fewer mistakes in the construction process. This in turn speeds up the approval process from the National House-Building Council, whose inspectors provide the workmanship guarantees that are required by most mortgage lenders on new homes.
The homes also have good thermal insulation. The panels are injected with a special mixture of acid and resin that creates a foam that keeps heat in and energy bills down. It is another selling point that Persimmon can use in its advertising. The beauty for the company is that from the outside the homes look no different from those on any other modern development, but they are cheaper to build and can be erected faster.
Persimmon's biggest rivals, Barratt and Taylor Wimpey, both use prefabricated components on many of their developments, but for now Space 4 remains the biggest automated construction facility for new homes in Britain.
Farley believes that eventually Space 4 could produce 5,000 homes a year, equivalent to about 50% of Persimmon's total sales.
"We can make a new road of houses in a month. Space 4 means we are ready for the growth when it comes," said Farley.
Quelle: Sunday Times, Issue 31.01.2010