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  • An Interview with David Renwick

An Interview with David Renwick

Here David Renwick, Chief Executive of Ocean Housing and a founding member of Advantage SW, discusses why they’ve chosen to adopt a Wood First policy and the advantages of building with timber frame.

In April 2012, Wood for Good is hosting a tour of the Scottish timber supply chain for a group of CEOs and senior managers from 20 housing associations in England.

The tour aims to educate housing associations about the benefits of working with timber. Currently, timber frame has only around 10% market penetration in England, compared to around 70% in Scotland.

While many developers in the English social housing market are lagging behind their Scottish cousins in the use of wood, one group of housing providers has long recognised the benefits of timber as a primary construction material. Advantage SW is a housing procurement consortium which works exclusively with buyers and suppliers to commission timber frame developments. In many ways, it began touting a Wood First policy long before Wood for Good began its campaign: 

At a time when the construction industry continues to suffer from a wavering economy, Advantage SW stands out as a beacon to local authorities and housing associations that are struggling to meet affordable housing targets.

The roots of the consortium were first planted in 2004 when the construction market was at its height and burgeoning order books meant that, while demands were high, so too were costs. This was further exacerbated by a shortage of skilled labour in the UK, particularly in stonework and masonry, leading to the beginnings of a funding crisis for many social housing providers. 

“Continuing with the procurement process as it stood was completely unsustainable,” said David Renwick, the chief executive of Ocean Housing. “Spiralling costs and time pressures meant we were fast approaching an undeliverable model. We recognised as early as 2004 that to meet the demands for new build social housing, we needed a low cost, high quality alternative.”

David got together with representatives from North Devon Homes, Yarlington Housing Group and Devon & Cornwall Housing Association to form Advantage SW, a limited liability partnership designed to achieve better buying power for its members. 

The group quickly embarked on a study to find an alternative to traditional building materials. A timber frame solution was trialled and found to be highly advantageous, decreasing build times by an average of 12 weeks and allowing construction projects to be achieved at lower costs. 

A secondary reason for selecting timber was its environmental characteristics, which would help the consortium meet increasingly strict building standards. 

David continued: “In 2004 sustainability was not quite the buzz word that it is nowadays, but reducing our impact on the environment through a carbon negative building material was very much where we wanted to go. Timber’s outstanding environmental properties helped to reinforce our choice. 

“Our decision to place timber at the forefront of our construction plans was nothing less than revolutionary. No other housing providers in England were using wood to such an extent and no real supply chain existed in the region, so we literally had to start from scratch.”

Advantage SW worked with businesses and academic institutes including local colleges to develop a local skills base. It has continued to invest in timber in the South West to create a market that now turns over £30m a year and employs 200 people.

Corporate social responsibility also filters through into the procurement process. Advantage SW members are committed to using only sustainably-sourced wood and a requirement is that they must be able to trace the origin of every single product used. For every tree felled, seven are planted in its place, helping to create more green areas and better living conditions. 

“The easy part was getting housing associations and tenants on board. What was much more difficult, and continues to be a hard-fought battle, is warming up the construction industry to the idea of using wood as a primary building material.

“Many working in the built environment sector are strongly – and somewhat detrimentally – stuck in their ways. Timber is widely used across the world and the UK is something of an anomaly. The construction industry needs to wake up to the potential of timber if it is to remain competitive.

“From our experience there are only benefits. Advantage SW abides to a ‘just in time’ principal, working on a supply and demand basis and quickly adapting to market demands. We have a created a portfolio of almost 30 different designs which offer a menu of options to meet all client design briefs and prevailing site conditions.

“All timber frames are manufactured off site and brought in ready for build. Unlike other trades, rain does not cause any delays and in our history we have lost only one day’s work due to bad weather.”

Now in its ninth year, Advantage SW continues to go from strength to strength, with members spanning across 17 housing associations in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. 

It recently completed its two-thousandth home and has amassed an impressive collection of awards for its innovative designs. This includes The Sunday Times’ British Housing Awards 2012 for Prince Charles House in the category of ‘Age-Restricted Development’. The housing scheme for older people was commended for providing first-rate building fabric performance and achieving an ‘Excellent’ BREEAM rating. 

For more information visit http://www.advantagesw.co.uk

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