Some people have the knack of packing in a lot of achievements and experience in a relatively short period of time.

Take Barratt Development’s top man on innovation for example.

A look at Oliver Novakovic’s CV will instantly tell you that here is a guy who will have some meaningful commentary about the UK housebuilding industry and the building materials and systems that supply it.

Taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to TTJ in Birmingham, Mr Novakovic, Barratt’s technical and innovation director, has a long background in offsite systems.

A materials engineer by profession, he entered the construction industry via the selfbuild sector in the form of Cornish timber frame manufacturer Thermatech, developing a closed panel system featuring a patented injected phenolic foam insulation approach.

This system was sold to national housebuilder Westbury and Mr Novakovic moved with it, helping to set up Westbury’s £12m Space4 timber frame manufacturing facility at Castle Bromwich. The factory is now operated by Persimmon, which purchased Westbury in 2005.

After 10 years at Westbury he moved to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) as director of housing, later becoming group director for Building Futures, helping the likes of M&S and Audi with building innovation and off-site. His BRE role was designed to help the organisation develop a more commercial approach.

Mr Novakovic has also been a goverment programme technical advisor, a chair of the Zero Carbon Hub’s Work Group 1 and was a visiting professor at Salford University.

Since July 2014, he has been at Barratt.

The company, which in 2014 recorded a £3.1bn turnover and a pre-tax profit of £390m, builds about 15,000 homes annually, of which it is committed to building 20% (3,000 units) through offsite construction by 2020, including timber frame.

"We are certainly the biggest housebuilder in the country. And it’s not just housing that we build, but also providing community benefits, planting of trees and building schools.

"I think we lead the way in creating great schemes and places where people want to live. Gone are the days when we see new ‘box-based’ housing."

At the moment, Barratt has made it clear to the market it does not intend to greatly increase production, but focus on provision of quality homes and delivering greater profitability from current building levels. "If there is a requirement to increase the amount of homes delivered, then we recognise off-site will be a strong option." Timber frame is once again part of the build mix at Barratt.

Barratt recently signed a long-term agreement with Stewart Milne Timber Systems to use the latter’s open panel systems on its timber frame sites in England. Its use of timber frame has until now been mainly focused on its Scottish housebuilding operations, where the build method is more commonly used.

"At Barratt, offsite technologies are all about improving speed, quality and costs with the customer in mind, putting the customer first," said Mr Novakovic.

"But no big housebuilders have ever built with mass use of the more advanced off-site systems such as volumetric or closed panels." A big change in recent years has seen Barratt moving to prefabricated roof cassettes on house designs which feature rooms-inthe- roof.

"The drivers for roof cassettes are dry construction and health and safety," said Mr Novakovic. "We are literally doing thousands of them, so they are cost competitive with standard room-in-the-roof construction approaches."

Sytems used include RoofSpace’s I-Roof and the Smartroof system.

Barratts is also using GRP (glass reinforced plastic) for the prefabricated dormers and for lightboxes as they are light and have thinner profiles than timber, which people like. The cost is comparable to traditional timber dormers.

Mr Novakovic’s work is seeing him assess a huge variety of building materials and systems as part of Barratt’s commitment to off-site construction.

"When I was at the BRE I had to look at hundreds of build systems, structural materials and sustainability.

"At Barratt we have recently looked at over 12 different advanced build system approaches and had interviews, discussions and workshops with hundreds of suppliers in the off-site market.

"We have chosen about four to review in greater detail."

Mr Novakovic reminds me that Barratt is "material agnostic" but says two out of the four could involve timber – one is a second generation advanced timber roofing system and the other is a whole house solution which could either use timber or another material and involves integration of services, insulation and doors and windows.

"We have to be careful about use of the word ‘off-site’ and connotations with advanced systems ," he adds. "It can sometimes be basic like integrating a finished window into a hole in the wall that takes account of thermal and acoustic requirements."

Supplier advice

Mr Novakovic’s advice to product and systems suppliers and manufacturers wanting to get more of housebuilders’ business is to do their homework properly before they make an approach.

Hard data and knowledge of how the likes of Barratt operates is essential to achieve success. "But sometimes they are trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

"You have to know what is our price breakpoint, what are our drivers, our barriers. "We make a decision and it goes into 15,000 homes. It has to be the right decision and not just the product, but the buildability and logistics – how do you deliver and transport it on site.

"You have to think about where innovation is required and I think it’s about the customer’s needs."

"The thing that always strikes me is the lack of understanding of customers’ needs. We get organisations turning up who try and tell us we are wrong in our approach and we need to change. But 50 years of delivering houses gives us a lot of experience in providing house designs that sell.

"The suppliers we feel have real potential we are happy to partner with to develop viable solutions for our market." SuSTainable approacheS So what about sustainability in construction, the scrapping of the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH) and the impact for builders? "If you compare building regulations (Part L: energy efficiency) in 1992-1996 with the 2013 update to the regs you can see there has been a substantial move to more energyefficient homes.

"Builders are having to look at how the structure is put together and they are delivering substantial improvements in energy-efficiency.

"The Housing Standards review includes elements of the Code so we will be meeting similar standards to the Code in set aeas. "So I do not think the Code has gone but the government will look to take all the good bits out and integrate it into the building regulations, which is preferable for us. "House-builders struggle when you have seven different standards you have to meet. It becomes a quagmire to try and deliver an outcome.

"However, the Code has been a stepchange and has done its job. If you look at what we build now compared to when the code was first introduced it is very different." Housebuilding has become a political football in the lead-up to the general election, as politicians recognise its beneficial impact on the economy.

Without wanting to be drawn on the different political parties’ approaches and public statements, Mr Novakovic did welcome the renewed focus on housing.

"The good thing for housebuilders is housing is high on the agenda for all parties. It seems to be a key component."

He said governments can and have played an important role in boosting innovation in the sector, citing many initiatives over the years, including the Design for Manufacture competition, work by the Homes and Communities Agency and more recent initiatives to kick-start building.

"Where government is able to support the innovation we are looking to do that allows the small to medium sized suppliers and manufacturers to deliver products into us without us taking the risk, that is to be welcomed."

Housing futures

So what will the new housing industry look like in 10 years’ time?

"In 10 years, I expect you will go to sites where the approach is different. I think you will still see the majority of houses delivered in the traditional approach but you will see more off-site technology being applied. "I think we will also see more Smart Homes featuring intelligent systems in the house allowing homeowners to manage their homes better. You will be able to use your mobile phones to put the heating on while you’re out. There is a lot more of this coming in."

"I think off-site has the opportunity to take a large slice of the market, which of course is different to saying that it actually will take that large slice."

He said it would be good to see more innovation in the timber frame sector, as the product had essentially remained the same for 20 years.

"I think there has been an evolution in the timber frame industry. Gone are the days when we saw £5-10m invested in a factory. "The approach has developed somewhat with some closed panel systems which allows for quicker construction. But these are not on a mass scale.

"I’ve just been to Japan where there is mass customisation in the timber frame sector. The customers can have literally whatever they want."

This he said was in volumes far exceeding the offerings operated by high-specification German timber frame house manufacturers. "Of course, in Japan it is a different culture from the UK and a higher priced product."