YOU may be forgiven to believe that the vast majority of work to build houses happens on site.
But for one local homebuilder, a large proportion of the construction phase is completed in a tucked away factory in Gemini – and at a fraction of the carbon cost.
Developer Countryside is behind the huge new home scheme next to Centre Park in the town centre, with the former Spectra Packaging site along the Mersey set to be transformed into the Rivers Edge estate containing more than 500 houses.
These will be homes in Warrington, for Warrington residents, with a large proportion of each house being built in Countryside’s modular factory in Warrington on Europa Boulevard.
A range of panels are built, from floors to walls
We went to visit the 185,000-square foot site, or one and a half football pitches in comparable terms, to see the housebuilding process in action.
After arriving at the Gemini factory, which has been operational for three years, we were met by director Neil Stevens, who explained the role it plays in the homebuilding operation.
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Essentially, workers create timber frame panels which make up floor, wall, ceiling and roof structures, which are then transported and assembled as homes on site.
When Countryside decided to bring this process in-house in its own factories, it chose Warrington due to its location, with transport links across the north of England.
Neil Stevens, director of the Countryside Warrington factory
It is also well-established in Warrington, having developed sites in Appleton Thorn, Winwick and Orford over recent decades.
The firm has invested more than £30million in the closed panel system to date, and recently celebrated the construction of its 5,000th home using this method.
In Gemini, Countryside employs 68 members of staff on the factory floor, with plans to increase this number further by recruiting and training up local people.
Workers prepare timber at the start of the process
Timber frame panels built in Warrington are used at Countryside’s developments across the north of England, from south of Crewe up to Middlesborough.
The key benefit of working this way is environmental, with the homebuilder aiming to reduce its direct and indirect emissions by 42 per cent by 2030.
It is also targeting reducing indirect emissions from its supply chain and home users by 52 per cent in the same timeframe, with increasing the Warrington factory’s capacity being vital to that goal.
A panel continues along the construction process
Each open panel timber frame house emits 14,460kg less carbon dioxide than a traditional brick-and-block house.
Such is the success that this method has had in cutting the carbon cost, the Gemini factory has seen production almost double since it opened in 2019, and it now has a maximum capacity of 1,400 units a year.
The production process starts at the factory store, where racks of raw materials and fixtures are kept – materials such as timber, plasterboard, nails, glass for windows and insulation.
Glass windows stored ready to be fitted to panels
Materials are sourced as locally as possible, including insulation from neighbouring St Helens, and 99 per cent of material wastage is recycled.
This ranges from wood and plasterboard offcuts to plastic packaging, and even the fabric straps used by cranes to lift the panels into place on site.
From the material store, the first job is to cut pieces of timber to size using machine-controlled but human-operated saws.
Insulation is inserted into the panel cavities
Around 20 per cent of the unit building process involves manual work, with machinery performing most of the physical jobs.
However, humans are still required, especially in skilled roles to maintain the machinery, with two full-time engineers based at the Gemini site.
Workers are also required to read plans, so there is also a technical aspect to the role.
Specialist machinery flips the panels 180 degrees
Once cut to size, timber is carried around the factory by conveyer, with the next step to add a dampproof vapour membrane.
Specialist machinery flips the panel 180 degrees to allow workers to access and work on the other side, where they then add insulation and plasterboard.
Once complete, the panels are wrapped and stored ready to be distributed to the relevant site.
The panels are wrapped and loaded ready to head to the Rivers Edge site
During our visit we saw panels ready to go to the Rivers Edge site, as well as other Countryside developments in Yorkshire.
The remaining job is to lift them into place by crane at the site of the housing development, complete the brickwork and fit the roofing, as well as mechanical and electrical work.
It was interesting to gain an insight into this new way of working, and with the factory producing around 30 completed homes per week, ranging from small terraces to larger flats, it is great to see industry in full flow in the town.
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