Taking the factory to the forest: a solution to the rural housing crisis

Rural life beyond Covid-19

An unexpected consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the rise in property sales - and values - as people rush to escape the city to a new home in the countryside in a bid to avoid the possibility of catching the virus. On the face of it, this is a win-win - people in urban environments sell their homes at inflated city price levels for what is hoped will be improved quality of life away from noise, pollution, high council taxes and the cost of the daily commute to work, etc., whilst those homeowners already living in more rural settings see their houses rising in value and are able to sell them and/or plots of housing land for much higher prices than before.

the rural conundrum

Exacerbating depopulation

There are downsides to this: town and city councils may see their ability to generate current levels of council tax reduced as residents migrate beyond their boundaries, whilst people living in the countryside - especially those of working age with young families - increasingly find themselves priced out of the opportunity to rent, buy or build homes for themselves within their communities. In remoter rural locations where construction costs are already high due to importation of materials and lack of local contractors, the need for affordable homes to retain this demographic group has become more urgent than ever before.

The closing of old doors

Often the young people that the future of rural communities depends upon find themselves having to pay high rental costs unmatched by local earning potential and, all too often, are forced to move away from families and friends to places offering better employment and housing prospects. The Covid-19 lockdown (and the prospect of Brexit) has shattered this possibility, however, with many employers in previously prosperous urban area shedding substantial numbers of staff in their efforts to remain in business.

More unforeseen Covid-19 consequences

Already there is evidence that large-scale employers that might previously have been able to offer a regular range of job opportunities are not only struggling, but that their problems are presaging knock-on effects on the many smaller firms that service them. The entirely predictable impact on these SMEs to sustain job numbers at previous levels will, in due course, likely lead to additional unemployment and cause severe down draughts in the local housing market, especially if mortgage interest rates - and foreclosures - begin to rise.

Moving from reaction to innovation

So far, so gloomy, but can there be light at the end of the tunnel: can multiple phoenixes emerge in the form of new and infinitely more affordable approaches to housing supply and housing quality? Certainly, the range of current crises have not arisen without prior prediction, especially in the fields of construction and property valuation. For more than 40 years report after report into the workings of the UK construction industry have identified severe systemic challenges and made multiple sensible recommendations on how disaster might be avoided. As is ever the way, industry has failed to see the wood for the trees and has only ever responded in reaction to legislation rather than positively with genuine innovation.

Rethinking affordable housing provision

The time to rethink construction - especially of homes - is undoubtedly upon us but it would be naive - given the historic modus operandi of the building industry in the UK - to expect this particular leopard to change its spots. Despite some disruptive rhetoric emerging at present from more enlightened members, or flannel from others about implementing modern methods of construction, much of the industry (especially amongst smaller companies) mostly wants to go back to the inefficient and costly ways it operated before Covid-19 came along.

Rural construction challenges

Construction in remote rural areas of the UK brings with it an entirely different set of conditions from larger urban centres: for one, building traditionally can be very weather-dependent and in the more northerly parts of the British Isles the opportunity to build is restricted to a short season with limited daylighting. Many of the materials and components required for construction need to be transported considerable distances and can involve ferries which are also affected by prevailing weather conditions. Road infrastructure too, is not always good in these parts of the country and the lack of locally available, experienced labour means site personnel may need to be brought from elsewhere, raising local accommodation challenges as well as additional expense.

Modern methods of construction, old procurement routes

There is also the issue of the small numbers of housing units required in each community - too small to be economically viable for a conventional private house-builder. To combat these problems, some modern methods of construction have been introduced successfully in various places, but their capacity to deliver new, more energy-efficient housing remains dependent upon the transportation of structural and other materials from elsewhere.

re-thinking rural architecture

Making affordable sustainable rural housing happen

How then to challenge - disrupt, even - this state of affairs to deliver new affordable, energy-efficient, sustainable housing and other community facilities using local materials and other resources? The challenges are clear: the need to identify what these resources are, how they might be better used to add value, mitigate (or better, eliminate) fuel poverty, create the opportunity for community members to develop new skills and sustainable employment possibilities, as well as providing quality homes for themselves and their families’ future.

The two critical resources

This project focuses on how two resources might be better used to achieve all of the above: the land and the forest.

Disrupting the land ownership pattern

Land ownership is a perennial issue for remote rural communities in the UK, with homes and employment, especially in Scotland, is often dependent upon the owners of large estates, making individual solutions difficult. Since 2003, however, Land Reform in Scotland has seen a slowly increasing number of rural communities involved in buyouts of the land upon which they live and depend and, for many, the success in achieving this has brought with it other possibilities, most notably in the development of renewable energy schemes that provide both power and income.

Obtaining local value from the forest resource

A number of these community land buyouts have also included forested areas and it is this resource that offers the most immediate possibility to redefine the landscape as far as local construction is concerned. The issue, however, is that these communities are often too small and too remote to justify the investment needed to establish a permanent sawmill and the associated plant required to process locally-grown timber into value-added construction components. And why do it if only a few new houses are required every few years? Yes, the immediate market may be tiny, but cumulatively the market is substantial, providing it can be managed efficiently.

Taking the factory to the forest

Which brings us to the idea of a mobile factory able to make use of locally-available timber to create modern mass timber panels that can be assembled into energy efficient homes. The factory can then move from community to community as and when required in response to predicted housing demand in each area. Most of the elements that would constitute such a factory are already available: the missing piece of the ‘train’ is the locomotive: an automated transportable press in which dowel laminated timber panels can be fabricated

Designing and building the mobile dowel lamination press

The project that is the basis of this website aims to prototype this essential piece of equipment since no such machine currently exists and to establish the business plan that will see Mobile Dowel Laminated Timber Panel Factories come to economic fruition and able to serve remote rural communities throughout the UK, as well as similar situations in other countries.

Be part of the story

This journal aims to record this journey and to encourage people from all sectors to support an initiative that is intended to ‘build-back-rural’ and help stimulate repopulation of the remoter parts of the country. The question ‘why dowel laminated timber?’ will be addressed in subsequent posts, with more technical detail added to this website.