Interview: “It’s like grown up Lego,” says Jon Johnson

Do we really need another trade body? Jon Johnson thinks so, that’s why – as he told Mark Cantrell– he and a few like-minded peers got together to launch the National Federation of Affordable Building

THERE’S always one, isn’t there? In this case, the “little squirt” looking to shake things up is Jon Johnson, founder of the community interest company (CIC) REACH Homes, who now also finds himself the pro-tempore chair of the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB).

Johnson’s note of self-deprecating humour aside, there’s a very serious intent behind the formation of this new trade body. Essentially, the organisation wants to amplify the voice of SMEs pioneering different approaches to offsite, modular construction.

There’s an untapped potential there, Johnson and his NFAB peers believe, that if harnessed could greatly contribute to the delivery of desirable, genuinely affordable, and environmentally sustainable housing. The trick is to get the various powers-that-be to hear their case.

“There’s an awful lot of good stuff going on around the country and, obviously, a desperate need for a solution, and the two just don’t seem to be getting on top,” he says. “Basically, I thought if no one else is doing it, I’ll have a go.”

So, he made a few calls and began pulling people together. From there, after an inaugural meeting in July at the Arden Hotel in Birmingham, the NFAB was born. It’s still early days yet; the organisation is still in the process of assembling itself, but it has high aspirations.

The meeting clearly struck a chord; the people who attended the meeting included Mick Pettit of Totally Modular; Jeremy Monk-Hawksworth of Black Country Make CIC; Kevin Jones of the Modular & Portable Building Association; Tim Hall of Build Offsite; Brian Maunder of Totally Modular; and a good few others.

“The point of getting everybody together is to speak with one voice to take on Homes England, the Ministry of Housing and the Local Government Association, and get something sensible done with land supply,” Johnson says.

Land, as always, is potentially the big sticking point. As research from the National Housing Federation highlighted recently, even housing associations can struggle to afford the cost of land with planning consent.

“Land is only worth what some body says it is worth, at the end of the day. It doesn’t have an intrinsic value in and of itself,” Johnson says. “But if the LGA, Homes England and the Government are prepared to ringfence all this public land for affordable housing, and not give it away to big builders, then we’ll have a way for people wanting to do the affordable building to access it that’s not at a massive cost.”

Johnson’s REACH Homes is exploring the potential of modified shipping containers to deliver modular homes at a low cost – around £35,000, he claims; one of the many different approaches coming together under the NFAB’s banner. At the time of writing, he is negotiating with Sheffield council for a piece of land to construct nine such houses.

“It’s been on the market for five years and clearly nobody wants it,” Johnson says. “The big developers just don’t want to touch little infill sites like that; it’s not worth their while. But as a ‘Dunkirk’ style solution, I think SMEs can use sites like that all over the place to provide a meaningful solution.”

Johnson has spent the last 12 months or so living in the prototype home, a one-bedroom studio, he built on a site located in Sheffield’s Heeley City Farm.

“It’s very comfortable,” he says. “It’s designed to Passivhaus principles, although it’s not certified. It’s got a one-kilowatt fan heater, which is the only heating; I’ve been living in it full time and it’s really great. It works to minus-10, it works to 30-degrees that we’ve had [this summer]. I’ve got six solar panels on the roof. It’s spacious and airy, and I am absolutely happy as Larry here.”

Johnson’s home is just a ‘rough cut’ version of what REACH Homes wants to do in the future. The method he is developing is versatile, he claims; able to build a variety of differing housing forms.

“It’s like grown up Lego,” he says. “You don’t have to use the containers; you can use the space between them. We are going to do some stunning houses, but they are not going to be expensive.”

Johnson is not claiming to offer a whole solution; rather, a part of one. Together with his peers involved in the NFAB, the approach is providing one or more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Others must bring their pieces to the picture, too, if the housing crisis is to be resolved. But he does feel the NFAB members will be bringing some important components, not least the emphasis on genuine affordability and environmental sustainability.

“We are looking at trying to revolutionise the less expensive end of the market,” he says. “We can come up with something that’s really desirable, that’s really affordable, that people can afford to live in… It’s not going to work for everybody, I know. I’m not some dewy-eyed idealist – 30 years in the police knocked that out of me – but I think we have a really good opportunity here to provide some alternatives to what’s currently on offer.”

Between them, Johnson reckons NFAB’s members can make a significant contribution to housing supply; not such “little squirts” after all.

NH

This article first appeared in Northern Housing magazine #2 October 2018

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