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Moving Modular Mainstream

Sevenoaks Modular (SO Modular) has been growing rapidly since formation in June 2018 on the back of a growing demand for timber and modular construction in the UK. We spoke to director Charlotte Hale to find out more.

Based in Neath, SO Modular are Wales’s largest specialist timber frame manufacturer and have been quickly making a mark in the housing market. They made national headlines in 2019 when they announced a £6.5 million investment in regenerating a large part of Neath’s iconic Metal Box industrial site. The hope is that they can go from producing 1,000 homes annually to more than 3,000 using timber as the ‘first material of choice’.

“For us, choosing timber was based on a number of factors including quality and efficiency, as well as sustainability,” says Charlotte. “We saw the direction of travel of the rest of the industry, anticipated an increased demand and we launched SO Modular based on that. As awareness of climate change has increased, so has a willingness to use more timber.

“The investment in the Metal Box factory – now known as JCG – allows us to create a bespoke environment to make our timber structures on a large scale under one roof. This is about making a significant investment that will benefit the local economy, keeping pace with demand and pushing an environmentally-friendly agenda, both in terms of the style of construction we champion and in terms of how we will regenerate the site itself.”

“Adding in the modular element to the process improves the speed and efficiency and also the quality of the final product,” says Charlotte. “Our manufacturing techniques allow us to consistently produce to very precise quality standards in a controlled and supervised environment – and of course modular construction can cut time on-site by 50%.

Customer expectations and market requirements mean the focus is increasingly turning to sustainable construction, greener and more environmentally-aware methods of consumption. While Scotland has long had a connection to timber frame housing, in England and Wales housebuilders and the overall perceptions of timber homes has been lower.

“Housebuilders are now much more receptive to using timber,” adds Charlotte. “Governments have been rolling out supporting strategies as well, driven by a desire for sustainability in the industry. In Wales we are seeing a growing number of specifications for modern methods of construction (MMC) in tenders that we have not seen before. For example, to include the windows in the frame in the factory.

“We have extended our product offering to incorporate windows, doors and external cladding into our prefabricated timber frame panels, with a view to offering fully modular volumetric buildings in the future. We have also invested in research into developing innovative bathroom and kitchen pods and cross laminated timber (CLT).”

Energy efficiency, improved productivity and an overarching aim of sustainable, circular consumption is at the heart of a modern construction sector. How is SO Modular playing a key role in manufacturing this new generation of low carbon homes that is essential to the 2050 carbon reduction targets?

“This is a driver for us across all aspects of the business,” says Charlotte. “We source all materials locally where possible and we have commenced works on our first scheme using completely Welsh timber. In our new factory, we also have a biomass boiler with carbon filters and we recycle a very high percentage of all our materials.

As UK society continues to recover from the effects of Coronavirus, the long term implications on the construction sector are still to be fully understood – both on-site and in the factory environment. So what is in store for SO Modular over the next 18 months in what will be a challenging post-Coronavirus construction sector? “We also have big investment plans that will see us take on new premises and create many new jobs in the heart of Neath. We already have a very healthy order book but our core client base is always expanding and we aim to provide the best possible quality modular and sustainable solutions across the UK.”

For the complete feature read the Summer Issue of Timber Construction

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