The Bristol Housing Festival is running over five years and acting as an incubator to road-test explore smart technology and offsite manufacturing in a real-world scenario with a view developing innovative solutions to accelerate the delivery of quality, affordable housing. Gary Ramsay caught up with Project Director Jeremy Sweetland, to talk about
Q: The Festival is an exciting development in UK construction – what is your background, and did you have any knowledge or experience of offsite manufacture and delivery pre-Festival?
Jeremy Sweetland (JS): Thanks. We think it’s exciting. My personal background is varied. I started out as a lawyer in corporate finance and then moved into more strategic leadership roles. Most recently my role was CEO of a Barristers’ Chambers in Bristol. Housing is one of the big issues in Bristol, and I am driven to make a difference in the city. Personally, I have explored what ‘home” is through setting up community houses and this has helped to shape the narrative of the Festival, which is to reimagine better ways to live in our cities. Innovation and housebuilding are crucial, but so is place-making and the interconnected services and elements that help create the local culture and community after the house is built.
Q: Can you say more about your role as Project Director? What is a typical day?
JS: Every day is different. Our role as the Housing Festival is to enable and support organisations of various types and across different sectors to make use of innovation and help them to navigate some of the barriers they might face in this process. A big part of my day is therefore relationship building and connecting stakeholders that have answers for each other. In particular we are working closely with Bristol City Council on a number of sites and starting to develop ideas with them about required system change to more effectively enable offsite. It’s important to me to carry the broad vision and passion for what is possible amid detailed problem solving on specific projects. We’re focused on telling the story, sharing lessons learnt and enabling the industry and the public to engage in positive conversations on housing and release hope that solutions are within reach.
Q: What are the origins and drivers behind the creation of the Festival and what does it hope to achieve – not just for the communities of Bristol but also as a role model for the wider UK? What are the ambitions of the Festival and those involved?
JS: Our aim is to pilot and test innovation in housebuilding, such as offsite manufacturing, to ‘find a way through’ that enables local authorities to make use of the solutions that already exist, and the ones being developed. We’re looking to create scalable and replicable models that can then be rolled out nationally, and this requires an environment of testing and shared learning. Ultimately, the purpose is not just to build new houses but to explore how housing can contribute to the flourishing of the city and the wellbeing of its residents.
Q: With a wide range of partners including Bristol City Council, Bristol and Bath Regional Capital, WECA and The Shaftesbury Partnership – what are their roles in creating new construction and housing models?
JS: Enabling successful innovation is only possible through collaboration. If the goal is creating housing that supports human flourishing, it’s about more than simply building units. Pioneering, ‘going first’ requires courageous and strong leadership from our politicians and the organisations we work with such as Bristol City Council and the West of England Combined Authority. Stepping into the unknown, using technology you’ve not used before, procuring companies you’ve not worked with before, presents the potential for more risk, but with clear objectives and strong leadership that can prove to be a risk worth taking to solve bigger problems facing the region.
The data clearly establishes we have a systemic failure within our housing system. Into that space, innovation is required and that requires collaboration and courage. Offsite housing is not a silver bullet to those prevailing challenges, but it does provide a context within which to re-imagine and redesign some of the system.
Q: The Festival is an ‘incubator to road-test, in a real-world scenario, both existing concepts and innovative solutions designed to accelerate the delivery of quality, affordable housing’ – how is this being delivered – and importantly – monitored and measured?
JS: It’s really encouraging to be working alongside so many organisations and individuals who are committed to finding innovative solutions and learning through successes and failures. This is what will enable these ideas to be replicable and scalable. Different projects are monitored and measured differently. For our ZEDpods project, we are working with Bristol City Council, the University of the West of England and the Centre for Thriving Places to test the physical builds and monitor the impact on the resident and the community. It’s our intention to work with partners like this on all builds in order to learn and share lessons from each project.
Q: What smart technology and offsite manufacturing systems have been explored so far? The developments with ZEDpods, BoKlok and L&G Modular Homes could be a real game changing proposition?
JS: Last October we were delighted to be able to announce the opening of LaunchPad, the first build project completed under the banner of the Housing Festival. You can see a tour of the homes and interviews with a couple of the residents on our YouTube channel. We are expecting the ZEDpods development in Bristol to be next and have more in the pipeline. Our hope is to be able to do different projects with different companies in order to show what is possible and enable the market to grow. If someone can ‘go first’ it makes it much easier for other local authorities to follow.
Bristol City Council announced a Climate Crisis in 2018 and an Ecological Emergency in February this year. As part of the build projects we are involved with we want to be promoting sustainable building and living. We are working with a range of offsite providers – from full volumetric through to local SME suppliers – within each of those methodologies there is innovation to be deployed and tested. As we learn how to work with and support a manufacturing focused build process we are determined to ensure the outcome is not just the Government’s desire to diversify and increase housing supply in the UK, but also how offsite can be a good news story to help address the climate crisis and the construction sector workforce shortages.
Q: The ultimate aim is to provide real and lasting positive change for the people of Bristol – what do you envisage that to be? Have any general points or conclusions been identified so far relating to the future of housebuilding?
JS: For us, this looks like flourishing communities. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote: “Housing exists as a basis for community and community exists for human flourishing”. We want to see innovation, particularly in the way we build housing, for the flourishing of a city. This isn’t simply about growth in wealth or economic output, but about the inclusive and holistic wellbeing of a city. It’s about creating homes that promote positive outcomes for physical and mental health, for education, for jobs and employment, and the reduction of inequalities. It’s a big aim, but Bristol’s One City Vision includes a specific goal around housing: by 2050, everyone will live in an affordable home that meets their needs within a thriving and safe community. We think it is possible but will require courage and innovation.
Q: A new architecture competition was recently launched with Bristol’s Trinity College to find a partner to design student accommodation – how is that progressing and what range of offsite systems have been proposed? What are the next stages?
JS: We have been delighted with the interest and quality of the proposals that have been submitted. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 the shortlisting process has been delayed. However, we should know the results of the first round in June. We’ll say more at that stage – follow our social media to stay up to date on this one.
Q: Bristol Housing Festival’s showcase fortnight attracted approximately 2,000 visitors and featured a wide range of innovative developments – what feedback have you had from the general public so far? What is the general level of understanding of offsite construction?
JS: We’ve held two showcase events now. The first, in October 2018 was the big one that launched the Bristol Housing Festival. It was an opportunity for the public, industry and politicians to come and visit, to see first-hand, some of the offsite technologies on offer. One of the key challenges to enable innovation is how new concepts are socialised and perceived. Feedback from that event was very positive, a lot of people commented on the sustainability of the products as well as the quality. Our second expo last year focused more on engagement events, most of which sold out. There seems to be real appetite from a wide range of people to understand more about what Bristol’s doing about housing.
Q: What is in the pipeline for the Festival for the next 12 months (albeit influenced by Covid-19 fallout)?
JS: We continue on. We are working behind the scenes to support and help bring the physical build projects forward and navigate through the barriers Covid-19 presents. We are still planning to host a large physical expo, although that will now be in 2021. In its place this year we are exploring hosting a virtual expo so watch this space.
The Bristol Housing Festival is an initiative of Bristol One City. For more information on the progress and many project developments of the Bristol Housing Festival visit: www.bristolhousingfestival.org.uk
Follow on social media: Twitter @Bristol_HF and Facebook @BristolHousingFestival
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