Off-site construction has come to the fore to help the National Health Service battle coronavirus, but the factory-build phenomenon is here to stay – quite literally – with a strong cluster across Hull and East Yorkshire ready to reap the rewards. New Premier Modular managing director David Harris spoke to David Laister.
“I remember 18 to 20 years ago standing in front of architects who had no time for it. Now the government has fundamentally embraced it, from education to health, housing to prisons. I see that as a huge turning point, and the industry is growing exponentially.”
There’s no wonder David Harris has set a target of making Brandesburton business Premier Modular a £100 million turnover operation.
Fresh from taking the reins from Eugenio de Sa, who steps up to chairman, the business has just secured a £7.5 million contract to deliver an apartment block down south, having worked round the clock to deliver Nightingale and conventional hospital new build and expansion over the past few months.
It has become something of a stand-out star of 2020, and with employee numbers heading towards 300 it is also helping mitigate what are hoped will be only short term losses in the allied caravan sector.
“We have been a rapidly growing business over the last seven to eight years, addressing the market for modular buildings and off-site construction and growing rapidly as people become more confident,” Mr Harris, who has been a director with the firm since 2011 said, having been elsewhere in the industry for a decade prior too.
“Modular is permanent, and the market is opening up,” he enthused.
“We’ve won market share, not necessarily off other modular builders, but general construction.
“We’re typically cost-neutral with other construction methods. We’re using the same materials, similar labour requirements, we just do it in a factory.
“What really drives it is speed. We can construct 50 per cent quicker, and that comes through for a lot of people, they can get a quicker return on investment, and there are better credentials. Safety, cleanliness, and much reduced interruption to operations. It is also much more efficient when you have people doing regular work, knowing instantly what needs to be done.”
From temporary hire fleets serving infrastructure construction sites to the latest win, a 58-unit five storey build in Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Premier is behind it all.
“As Covid hit we quite nimbly managed to win quite a number of contracts in health care, with rapid support for Nightingale hospitals and other facilities,” Mr Haris said. “We did quite a lot of this, and it really sustained our turnover while our other business, while still running, slowed.
“That has picked back up.”
Education, health care and site welfare are the three main pillars, but housing is building.
“It is a direction we have moved in over the last 12 months, and we’re now working on a large project [Wycombe]. We are moving into this space as this is a large growth sector that will help fulfil the growth we see for this business.”
To be classed as urgent accommodation provision, and commissioned by the local authority, it will turn heads around the country.
“Social housing is definitely one of the end clients, but modular will also develop with private sector too. Apartment space is a good area for this, as it is quite repeatable so you bring factory benefit to it.”
He’s encouraged by the ‘build, build, build’ strategy for coronavirus recovery also.
“Health care is definitely permanent build, ward accommodation, offices, but also theatres and other specialised areas.
“Covid is clearly temporary, and we transferred the hire fleet. It will be short lived but there’s a focus again on new hospitals, and that will be fantastic for a company like ourselves.
“We also do a lot of large site set-ups for big tier one clients on major infrastructure projects – if they continue to win the work then I’d like to think we ‘ll be involved.”
Hinkley Point C welfare is one that stands out – a £50 million contract for 38,000 sq m – made up of 900 modules.
And growth needs people too, while he is more than happy with the place. “We’ve taken on 40 people in the last three months, and we are looking for more – people to stay with us,” he said. “Good recruitment is critical for us, getting people with the right skill set and attitude to work.
“It is a very similar arena to the caravan industry, it has grown up on the original timber imports and modular building started as caravans. It has gradually evolved into permanent building, but joinery and steel erecting skills are very similar.
“How we innovate production processes is also key now. We have a fantastic facility, five factories on the Brandesburton site and capacity or another £30 million of revenue, enough space, but we will invest inside.”