Making eco homes affordable

REACH is a Sheffield based social enterprise training apprentices to use reclaimed and recycled materials to build affordable eco homes from shipping containers. Launched by ex-police inspector Jon Johnson (pictured below, right), who already runs recycling based social enterprise Strip the Willow, REACH recently got through to the semi-final of the national Virgin Media Business VOOM 2016 pitch competition. Jamie Veitch visited Jon to learn more about his plans for affordable eco homes.

Jon JohnsonWhy is there a need for REACH?
Everybody knows there’s a crisis with housing supply in the country at the moment. There are virtually no affordable houses being built. The government are not helping. Land supply and land prices mean developers are not interested in doing that kind of thing and nobody’s making them do it. In the meantime, average wages are falling, house prices are rising, Right to Buy is taking supply out of the market, housing associations are up against it. People are in desperate straights. They are looking to a future where they are not going to be able to afford their own place to live and that’s whole generations in the future. Every policy at the moment is pushing people to having to rely on a rental sector that’s not reliable, where 35% of properties don’t meet the habitable homes standard, and at the moment there’s just no viable alternative, nobody seems to be looking at a commercial-scale solution – and we’ve got one.

So creating a solution isn’t just about homes to buy, it’s about the rental sector too. In Sheffield, how many houses would need to be created to meet the demand?
According to a recent council report, 44,000 extra houses need to be built in the city in the next 20 years. At the present rate 1,500 a year are being built. And they’re not what you would call affordable. The cheapest start at about £160,000.

Your vision is about creating an alternative solution in terms of homes that people can afford – they will be eco homes too. What does your prototype look like?
At the moment it looks like a 40ft bright orange shipping container! We’re very grateful to Heeley City Farm for hosting us there at the site of the Alternative Energy Centre. We’re going to share a lot of technology and development as we go on. It’s a fantastically visible place. I’m hoping to have that prototype done by the end of August so that people can see how good you can turn out a one bedroom unit and see the kind of finish and equipment you can get into a house for the price we’re talking about.

Tell us more about the finish and equipment you’ll have in it?
We’re aiming for as good a spec as we can possibly get for the money so we’re not going to cut any corners, we’re aiming for between 50 and 80% of recycled materials so the reduced costs of the material help to keep the costs down. Part of what we do at Strip the Willow in our social enterprise model here is to train up apprentices and work experience people, and they will be working alongside experts in solar and insulation, plumbing and electrics to provide a top quality home. Anybody who has Googled container homes on the internet can see that there are hundred of good examples around the world, but very few in this country.

Why is that?
I think it’s a perception thing. The first thing people say when you tell them we’re doing shipping container homes is ‘I don’t want to live in a metal box’, but if you think about it, we all live in concrete or brick or wooden boxes at the moment, so it’s really just a matter of showing people that a metal space is no different. People think it’ll get hot in the summer and cold in the winter but we’re going to insulate it and use techniques that are used in Germany and Scandinavia to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What kind of techniques?
It’s all going to be climate controlled, in fact the climate in these houses should be healthier and nicer to live in than existing homes, because they are going to be mechanically ventilated with a heat exchanger so that sucks all the moist, stale air out, and then heats up fresh air coming back in. We’re going to insulate them to a standard called Passivhaus, which is extensively used in Germany and Scandinavia, where a very heavily insulated building envelope stops the heat transmission to the outside and also helps to cut your domestic energy bills by up to 80%. We’re looking to get all the properties certified to a variety of standards of which Passivhaus is one, so these really are going to be top quality homes, and we’re taking all the flabby bits out of the existing building process, we’re taking the heavily labour intensive bits out, we’re taking a lot of the blockwork and material supply costs out, and shaving it down as much as we can.

What’s your business model?
We’re a not for profit business: we’re not looking to make a huge amount of money out of this, although having said that, I’ve got a financial plan heading forward over the next five or six years which means that by phase five of the project, which should be about 18 months to two years, we’ll be able to buy land at commercial rate and then sell the houses with the freehold; by phase seven, which is probably going to be three years or so, we’ll be able to provide financed properties so people won’t have to go cap in hand to the banks; and we’ll also be able to look at the social housing market which again is being decimated: social housing supply is drying up because of the right to buy and the squeeze that’s being put on housing associations. People can’t afford places to live and that’s why we’ve come up with the scheme.

How do you get from prototype stage to phases five and seven that you’ve talked about? How do you get sufficient income to get there and what are the challenges?

The big sticking point is land supply. There is a limited amount of land to use. Having said that there’s a lot of brownfield land in Sheffield which we’re looking to redevelop. Because of the versatility of the containers that we’re using, we can put them in places where you wouldn’t contemplate doing a traditional build. I’ve got a meeting with the councillor in charge of infrastructure and we’re discussing options to take this forward, and I now the council’s chief executive is personally interested. I’ve tried to create a public consensus to start with, and the VOOM thing has been absolutely fabulous in doing that because it’s got the message out to thousands and thousands of people and I’m being approached on a daily basis by people saying this is desperately needed and how can we help. I’ve been snowed under with offers of help from experts and volunteers and people who want to buy the houses. We’ve got a long waiting list already of potential clients – I know we can sell them. The market is there and people are absolutely gagging for the chance to own their own home. I just think people have a basic human right, if they want to be able to afford a house, they should not be forced to live in rented property.

And supply of containers won’t be a problem?
No. And the construction process is clean and quick; it cuts down on your carbon miles, it makes project management easier, and I don’t see any reason why in five years’ time we shouldn’t have a yard in every city in the country.

You mentioned 50 to 80% of material being used being recycled? What’s the rest?
Yes. The only things we’re going to have to buy are things like composting toilets, the char pumps, and solar panels and technical bits – and I’ll recycle them if we can, there are plenty coming back into the system now as people replace and upgrade. And if things come in that we can’t use we can recycle them elsewhere, for instance in district heating projects.

What does industry think?
We can also do research and development and we’re already working with some big name suppliers, like PGK Solar in Nottingham, one of the biggest importers in the country. People are really, really excited about the fact that we’re doing this a different way and that we’re trying to really make a difference and they can see that the sums add up, the logistics add up, the idea adds up and the supply and demand adds up – it’s a perfect virtuous spiral.

And as a social enterprise how else will you reinvest surpluses?
It’s going to create loads of jobs and loads of opportunities. The people who come in on apprenticeships and work experience can come and learn basic skills from us and maybe end up with a home themselves.

What kind of support have you had?
VOOM’s been a fantastic profile raiser, so many people know of us and what we’re doing now. I’ve also had support from Heeley City Farm, we’ve had the funding and backup from UnLtd; we’ve just been accepted onto Business in the Community’s Arc programme which is 12 months of business support. I’ve just graduated from the School for Social Entrepreneurs and am pitching for their Scale-Up scheme – amazing support from them; the support from the team here and the volunteers at Strip the Willow has been incredible. Strip the Willow itself was a mad idea two and a half years ago and we were wondering if it would work – now we’re paying quite a few wages; I’ve just taken on another chap who did work experience; we’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do, quicker than we ever thought we were could.

Photo by .Martin.

Jamie Veitch

Freelance writer and consultant

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