Bruce Bell, founder of Facit Homes, explains why digital manufacturing has a lot to offer in the future of house-building.
Interview with Bruce Bell
Bruce Bell's working life has been spent at the intersection between the digital side of construction and architecture. He originally studied industrial design but then went on to work for Norman Foster's architecture practice in London. He then returned to his studies at the Royal College of Art in London and did a masters degree that focused on digital fabrication. He then ran a traditional architecture practice with a couple of friends. However, all the time, he was drawn to the potential of using digital manufacturing for building homes.
In 2008 he set up Facit Homes to develop these ideas.
Digital information is used directly to make components and assemblies
Construction is overwhelmingly analogue. And there's very few projects, or relatively few projects, that I would classify as being digital.
Buildings have been designed on computers for years. The big difference here, however, is that the digital information is then used directly to make components, parts or assemblies. So it's that direct translation from the 3D computer model into physical parts by computers or computer controlled machines that is digital fabrication.
This is not to be confused with pre-fabrication, which in some instances can even be carried out by hand.
Digital manufacturing creates jobs that people want to do
The construction industry suffers from a skill shortage where there are not enough people to all the physical work. This is a product of building in a traditional way, but it could be different. Bruce believes that embracing digital manufacturing would move people into different positions and create more jobs for educated and professional people.
There is consistency because they control the whole process
Facit Homes has become a turnkey provider, doing everything from the concept, design, planning, manufacturing, construction, construction management, all the way through to handover to the customer.
This is to get around the fragmented nature of construction.
Bruce reflects on his years of running a small architectural practice where there would be consultants, engineers, M & E, specialists suppliers, a contractor and of course the customer.
Who's really controlling the situation? It could be very much influenced by any one party's interests. So maybe the contractor has issues or maybe the client wants to take control too much, or maybe the architect is trying to push themselves around. It's not a very solid structure.
In manufacturing one company will take responsibility and put their name to the product, even if they don't do everything themselves.
This means there's a single point of contact for the customer and a better experience all round.
Digital manufacturing is more flexible than prefabrication
Digital manufacturing is flexible because it is based on digital tooling rather than physical tooling. Prefabrication generally relies on a physical space and an assembly line.
You might have wall modules being put together, or roof modules or maybe even whole rooms. And they're very reliant on the physical setup that allows you to make it. And that means they're very standardized.
When it comes to housing no two homes (or sites) are the same and therefore the customer is always looking for a bespoke solution.
Digital manufacturing can deliver on these requirements no matter what the conditions.
A suite of core products simplifies the process
Bruce explains that they've worked hard to develop core products within the business. For example, every house will have the same heating system, one of two different foundation systems, the same timber frame chassis, the same roofing detail and the same window system.
This consistency of products throughout each property allows Facit Homes to deliver the projects for a fixed price, on time and fulfil the customer's brief.
Costings are considered much earlier than a traditional project
The first few steps of Facit Homes' customer journey are not too dissimilar to what you might expect working with a traditional architecture practice. There's a site appraisal and a customer appraisal. They will look at the constraints of the site and the customer's brief, and try to marry those things together.
We have some data-sets and tools that allow us to establish costs at a very, very early stage so that we can develop the brief with the customer and we can make sure that the house is the right size, and it's something that they can afford.
Facit Homes only makes money through construction so it's in their interest to get comprehensive costings and make sure the customer can afford the completed home.
3D visualisation is a key tool
A team of architects design the house, taking into consideration the brief and understanding the light, the access, the views, and so on.
Each step of the way, from concept to working out the layouts in more detail, they get reviewed with the customer.
Because we build everything in 3D, naturally as part of our design process, we have a real time rendering application which allows us to walk through with light and shade and sunshine and materials, and understand how the building will look and feel. And that's great for both us, the design team, and obviously also for the customer. So they really understand what it is they're getting.
They take a holistic approach to sustainability
Facit Homes have considered everything from embodied energy to the manufacturing process, transport, as well as the operational energy use of each house.
They are always looking for materials with a low embodied energy. Interestingly Bruce describes one situation where they had to switch away from using a cellulose (plant-based) fibre to a petrochemical product because it was hard to get a consistent standard of installation with the ‘blown in' fibre.
However, of the two choices of petrochemical insulations on the table, there was a huge discrepancy in embodied energy.
What the choice came down to for us was between polyurethane insulation and polystyrene insulation. So polystyrene insulation uses only about 5% of the energy that polyurethane insulation uses in its creation. So that really helped inform the choices for all of the products that we use.
The graphite treated polystyrene bead they now use has a much better flow rate and fills volumes better. Plus it has a slightly better thermal performance.
The building envelope is environmentally optimised
The buildings are all super-insulated and score well in terms of airtightness (normally between 1.2 and 2.2 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals).
However, Bruce believes the additional investment to achieve Passivhaus standard levels of airtightness is hard to justify.
To get full Passivhaus certification, you very much have to be designing your home as a Passivhaus from the start. And it really affects the way that the building is orientated and the size of the openings and all sorts of things. And quite frankly our buildings already have enough constraints. They are quite often in urban situations where we're responding to all sorts of different design parameters. So it's just not realistic, I don't think.
They are keeping an eye on battery technology development
They often review their core products to make sure they are still the best choices. So they have installed a few more air source heat pumps recently.
They are also looking at photovoltaic panels again. With feed-in tariffs so low now, a key consideration is always whether that energy will be used. So when home battery technology gets better then it will be a great advance to make use of power that you've generated over a longer period of time.
Connectivity is the big change that is needed
Building information modelling has become a fairly standard tool in the construction industry, but connecting all this information directly to the supply chain is non existent.
Bruce explains how this gap could be filled.
For example, there are window manufacturers components on the internet, and you can go and download them. But they're not built very well, they are inconsistent, they don't really have all the design options. So you have to rebuild it from scratch with all the information, all the parameters that you need. And then we've built systems so that we can exchange data with a window manufacturer… So for the wider industry to adopt these kind of techniques, that gap needs to be filled. Or alternatively, you're going to see companies who are disruptors, like us, who do everything themselves.
Facit Homes is digitally manufacturing on site again
When Facit Homes featured on the Grand Designs programme back in 2012 they demonstrated digital manufacturing on site using their mobile CNC machine. Since then they have been manufacturing in a factory.
However, deeply understanding the pros and cons of each set-up, they are now returning to site.
You can see people or companies who are heavily investing in modular off site construction, which will grow, but it still will only ever end up being maybe 10% of the market at most, and the other 90% of the market who are building things on site. And for me, that's a really exciting area because it's unexplored, you know, nobody's ever really said. What can we do with this? So for me, that's the most interesting bit is traditional construction, how we can change it.
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