Determination to keep its projects true to the design led FACIT Homes to adopt modularisation – and ‘manufacture’ the buildings itself
Digital fabrication, bespoke design and agile onsite manufacturing have helped FACIT Homes carve its niche in the one-off housing market. Keen to maintain control over the whole build process, co-founders Bruce Bell and Dominic McCausland set out to ‘manufacture’ buildings using digital design information and a portable CNC router to produce the components that form the FACIT chassis.
George Legg, FACIT’s director of architecture, explains.
Why did you start FACIT?
Bruce has a background in product design and fine arts, Dom in carpentry and also fine art. Bruce is not qualified as an architect but has run architecture practices. It was a big frustration for him to not get what he was expecting when a contractor interpreted the drawings. So he became interested in the manufacturing side of production design, which ensures quality and precision. He set up the company as a collaboration between manufacturing and architecture, specifically focusing on one-off homes.
Did his specific background encourage this approach?
Because of his product design background Bruce was probably thinking very differently to an architect, who would have probably said ‘let's do the contracting’, not ‘let's try and find a way to control construction through a manufacturing process’. Although elements of what we do conform to traditional contracting, the aim is to replace it with manufacturing as much as possible and to constantly increase that level of control and accuracy.
What sets your way of working apart?
We do fewer projects, but we do them in more detail. We draw everything in 3D. If you told an architectural firm that we are drawing nuts and bolts in 3D, they'd probably say we are mad. But as we are responsible for the construction we want to make sure everything co-ordinates properly. By investing in that level of detail we save time and cost on site.
Not all of the consultants we work with use BIM. If they don’t we model their information ourselves to make sure it works. That BIM model becomes the cutting pattern for our timber frame.
How does your approach compare to modular systems such as Cross Laminated Timber?
Our approach is more of a framework for controlling what happens on site than a construction method or building system. The idea behind FACIT is not about plywood boxes, it’s about the design team achieving greater control over the outcomes
So you draw everything in your model, and reality follows suit?
We have control from our office over the frame of the building. But if you tell a plumber to put a pipe run in, they won't necessarily put them exactly where you said to; rather they will find the most efficient route. We then have to work out whether to insist on our way or approve theirs.
Do you issue site information in 3D or 2D?
We have tried both. On our last project we had a tablet on site, and the site manager was accessing a version of the 3D model and taking dimensions from it. This worked quite well, but still needs some refining as a process. Some of the questions we asked while using this method were: Do you give site managers access to the model, which is a live piece of information? Can they read it? Is it easy for them to navigate? We are continually trying to make the interface between the site and the office better.
What tools help you do that?
We use really simple things like Google Hangouts to document the process and archive that information. We take lots of 360° photos which allow everyone in the office to look around the building in detail. So there's a continuous conversation going on between the office and the site team.
And when things go wrong?
Occasionally things do go wrong and then we deal with them as an integrated design and construction team. There's no blaming the site manager; there are no legal hurdles.
As an architect you don't normally get told about problems. The problems occur, the walls get covered over, you never know about it. We are in a unique position, because the problem occurs and it pops up on screen. And it's in everyone's interest to look at it and make it better as we are all accountable.
Could you design remotely and only ship the information for others to build?
We are looking at how we can employ subcontractors in another area and still communicate effectively.
Doing a house in Denmark was quite interesting for that reason. We did all the coding and produced all the information for the frame, and then we shipped that data to the client. It cut it all out on its CNC machine and assembled it.
Have you ever considered selling the D-Process itself?
When FACIT started we looked at self-build projects where we would sell the frame and others would complete the building. But we couldn’t achieve the quality we desired for a building with our name on it. So to be able to control that final product we have to see it through from start to finish.
Do you calculate the energy or waste savings you achieve?
We haven't done any detailed post occupancy evaluations yet, but anecdotal evidence from a recent client suggests savings of around 80% on energy bills compared to its previous Victorian terrace house. We super insulate and triple glaze our buildings as standard, and our airtightness levels and insulation values are close to passivhaus criteria.
We are quite strict about minimising waste because it costs us money. Digitisation allows us to calculate the most efficient use of material for CNC cutting.
What potential do you see for exploiting economies of scale?
We'd love to do more. Bespoke one-off homes are quite a premium market to be in, custom build is another way to go. We are doing a research project about digitising custom build at the moment; looking at whether we might be able to offer things more cost effectively to a rapidly growing market.
Gesine Kippenberg is practice policy and projects officer at the RIBA
Facit is the first is a series of RIBA case studies on the role of architects in construction innovation