Building with Technology

Since its launch in 2015, Project Etopia has seen its profile rise year-on-year. We spoke to Rosanna Lawn, Global Brand & Strategic Partnerships Director, about the importance of technology, disruptive design and factory manufacture on UK housing provision.

Q: Can you say a little about your role at Project Etopia? What is your background in property and construction and did you have any experience of offsite manufacture pre-Etopia?

Rosanna Lawn (RL): I have not had the average career for a 27-yearold chartered surveyor. I started my professional career as a graduate in a corporate company, soon realising that corporate life didn't really suit my entrepreneurial spirit, so I set up a development business, YOO Living, and co-founded a network for young professionals, CREation Property Network – which gained huge industry recognition – finally finding myself where I am today, combining my love for sustainability with my business skillset. My role at Etopia is dynamic and broad, drawing on my experience and training within the real estate industry, and my ability for strategy and brand building to align partnerships and messaging in a unique way, making sustainability accessible and understood globally. I'm now leading on some really interesting programmes with Samsung, UKBCSD, BRE and the UN, but more of that will be announced in 2021.

Q: The offsite construction sector has boomed over the last 2-3 years with many new entrants to the market, with lots of talk of 'disruption'. What differences is Project Etopia bringing to a busy and increasingly crowded offsite sector?

RL: We like to refer to ourselves as the 'Tesla of housing'. A new company entering the market that is approaching things completely differently to other providers, positioning sustainability and technological advancement at the heart of our business model.

We look to collaborate across industries and within construction to ensure we have the best product available. For instance, bringing Samsung on board as a key partner across various subsidiaries – a huge brand with some great products. We also innovate and create our own products in-house, and this doesn't stop – we have a great panellised system, and we are looking into how we can make that more sustainable. We are already looking at 'version 2' of our smart home system and we haven't even released 'version 1' yet.

Q: With Project Etopia being seen as a disrupters and with a focus on the 'economic, environmental and smart technology' aspects of new homes – how can all this be delivered in an affordable way?

RL: David Attenborough spoke last year about the focus of COP26 being on the importance of making environmental causes economical too, as that is the only way global impact can really be made. Therefore Etopia work tirelessly on being able to drive these costs down to be accessible at every cost point. Having control over the supply chain has been key to driving the costs down to an affordable level, Etopia own the majority of the key products within the system which cuts out a lot of the middle men.

Q: The characteristics of newbuild homes has to improve drastically across the UK, plus the numbers of homes being built each year is historically low. Is the Project Etopia model a scalable concept and can it adapt to lifetime needs?

RL: Absolutely. The economic and environmental backbone of the business has ensured that whatever is delivered has the ability to be both affordable and scalable – to be a proper solution for both climate change and the global housing crisis it really has to be? Which is why the Etopia model exists in its current form. Our homes are built for the future, the combination of construction materials used, renewable energy packages and smart home systems, ensures that they have the ability to last lifetimes from both a built perspective but also a technology perspective, much like a Tesla car or smartphone, our homes will have the ability to update the software of the technology whilst retaining the same hardware, making the possibilities endless.

Q: There is a move towards placemaking and a growing desire to improve communities – do you see offsite delivery and by extension businesses like Project Etopia, helping to create some of these societal improvements?

RL: Offsite manufacturing is the only current scalable solution that is fast paced and sustainable, when we face climate emergencies, planning regimes changing, 2050 carbon targets and a huge lack of housing – there is no other option, we just need the construction industry to catch up. Etopia are now launching 'Powered by Etopia' which offers our solution, predominantly as a supplier, to SME's and Housing Associations because we innovative solutions and we need them fast.

Q: The construction industry is under huge pressure to reduce energy consumption and change material use across the built environment to meet the UK's net zero targets plus wider UN SDGs. How is Project Etopia delivering energy efficiency in its approach to homebuilding and management?

RL: Etopia are actively providing a solution for nine of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) at present and we align ourselves and our corporate social responsibility (CSR) closely to these key goals. Mainstreaming the SDG's is going to be key to a green recovery. At present we assess our homes using energy performance certificates (EPC). Whilst Etopia scores highly – with our average EPC for all homes built sitting at 105 – it is fundamentally a flawed rating system. We are now looking further afield at more globalised accreditation systems such as EDGE, that can tie in with world bank finance and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) alignment for green bonds, as well as assessing embodied carbon, operational carbon and carbon in-use across the whole business. This ensures that we are informed and able to counter any negative effects we may have on the planet.

Q: The Project Etopia structural system is based on a 'Hyper' SIP – can you say a bit more about the choice of a panelised system as opposed to a volumetric modular one and why a timber-based approach was chosen?

RL: We don't ship air – this is one of the key differences between the panellised solution and the volumetric method. Panels are containerised at the manufacturing facility and assembled on-site which allows for higher quantity of loads, these can be easily unloaded without machinery as they are lightweight, which also makes them great for troublesome infill sites. Due to the joining mechanism – which is patented – the buildings perform at twice the airtightness of Passivhaus standard, which is hugely beneficial when calculating the sustainability of the building.

Q: The type of skills and competencies required in the construction industry are changing rapidly – not least in the offsite sector with manufacturing expertise and growth in digital tools (AI/VR) etc. more important than ever. From a professional perspective how can the offsite sector attract, recruit and retain a diverse mix of new entrants?

RL: Digitalisation in the built environment is much more feasible with offsite construction. From being able to track panels and units from the manufacturing facility to site using QR codes and a digital passport, and then being able to monitor the performance of the building remotely using smart home technology, provides the opportunity to fully assess a building without ever having to go to site. Data and technology engineers and platforms such as Procore are needed more than ever, we need to quickly and efficiently be able to assess quality and sustainability to meet government requirements – how else will we prove we are meeting sustainability targets? However, whilst it is important to attract new talent in the industry to keep up momentum, we need to support the current trades too. The panellised system allows Etopia to combine a mixture of traditional trades and MMC that supports new growth in skillsets and the movement into digitisation, whilst ensuring stability in current job roles.

Q: How has work progressed on the Corby project and what lessons have been learned? What plans are in place for 2021 for Project Etopia and the facilities at Ellesmere Port and Tiverton – are these working to capacity?

RL: We learnt a lot and gained a lot – Corby is where we have set some of the ground-breaking statistics on our homes and won awards such as 'Eco Initiative of the Year' and Small Developer of the Year at this years' RESI awards. It was also an opportunity for Etopia to show our homes in action and how much our owners love them, which they really do. 2021 is lined up to be even more incredible, with the launch of new territories, some private developments signed and, in the pipeline and big announcements for Powered by Etopia. I'm excited, exhausted but excited!

For more information visit: www.projectetopia.com


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