NuGen Properties

TopHat chair challenges prefab myths


TopHat chairman Carl Leaver makes his point to the House of Lords built environment committee

With the collapse of Ilke Homes and Legal & General Modular Homes earlier this year, the House of Lords built environment committee is asking: “Modern methods of construction – what’s gone wrong?”

Carl Leaver, chairman of volumetric startup TopHat, appeared as a witness this morning. He took the opportunity to assert that TopHat houses were as solid as traditional brick-built ones and offered his analysis of where his competitors went wrong.

He was keen to challenge the popular conception that factory built (category one) houses are less substantial than traditionally built one. Volumetric house-builders have been notably reticent to state the design life of their products but today Leaver was clear. When asked  what the design life and end-of-life recyclability of a TopHat house was, he said: “Our homes are designed with a life of 60 years, which is exactly the same as traditional construction.

“Actually, there is no difference between the lifecycle of our homes and the lifecycle of traditionally constructed homes.”

He continued: “We almost need to dispel this kind of thinking that MMC is something that is wholly different from traditional building. All we are doing is industrialising a build process in exactly the same way as the Victorians industrialised brick making.”

There was, he said, “a hump of market acceptance that we’ve got to get over”. But in the same way that Nissan had revolutionised car manufacturing in the UK, TopHat aims to revolutionise house-building.

Quizzed on concerns raised by the National Fire Chiefs Council, which has called for stricter testing of modular homes, Leaver said: “We test for fire in exactly the same way that anyone else does.”

Leaver was appearing alongside Vistry Group chief commercial officer Michael Stirrop, representing category two (two dimensional) MMC, but Leaver did most of the talking. Not only is he chairman of TopHat but he is also chair of the industry association Make UK Modular.

Leaver, 55, has spent most of his career in hospitality and retail. He began his career at Pedigree Pet Foods in 1989 and then moved into the hotel industry, working for Forte, Whitbread (running its budget hotel chain Travel Inn) and De Vere,  then Marks & Spencer and Ladbrokes Coral.

Asked why the MMC category one sector appeared to be having such difficulties, he said that the failure of Ilke and Legal & General Modular was not just down to market conditions. “There were a number of strategic choices they made and operational issues that led to their demise. And the reason that it has happened in this relatively compacted period of time is because of the downturn.”

Other mis-steps he cited included the use of expensive materials like cross laminated timber and hot rolled steel floors, and the decision to add brick skins on site. TopHat’s proprietary brick cladding is attached in the factory.

In choosing to develop its own sites, Ilke Homes had taken on risks associated with groundworks that it was not able to control.

Critical to success of the house prefabrication model is having a consistent level of demand to keep the factory fed, Leaver said. One or both of his failed competitors had decided to reduce their prices to keep the factory busy but had not allowed for the possibility of rampant inflation.

“The single biggest barrier to success is inconsistent volume,” Leaver said.

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