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Eric Dean
Eric Dean

In the face of worldwide housing shortages and a lack of skilled construction labor, Eric Dean wants to disrupt home building—and make construction trades all but obsolete.

Dean, the innovation and production director for Legal & General, a British insurer that aim to be one of that nation’s largest homebuilders, presented a new, CLT-focused manufacturing process at the FEA 2016 Forest Products Forum this week. His solution: to “deskill” single and multifamily home construction into a modular home factory assembly line.

“A house is a very simple thing. But every time we build a house, we seem to reinvent the wheel,” Dean told the audience. “So we’ve done a seamless design process linked into a seamless manufacturing process. All through the process what we’re doing is cutting out layers of people we don’t need.”

That means rather than a whole construction crew, along with subs for plumbing, electrical, and the other specialties, two workers can build half a house in five hours, Dean said. “It becomes a logistics exercise. We’ve got exactly the right process and the right tools. And we can work really efficiently. There’s no skill in any of it. This process is all about mass production. It doesn’t matter if we’re making 100 houses of the same type or different. As long as the process is the same, we can deliver it efficiently.”

Dean isn’t just theorizing about this new “disruptive” modular housing concept, either. With L&G, he’s got deep pockets behind him, including an initial investment of about $130 million. L&G used that money to build a massive 580,000-square-foot factory that houses the biggest CLT press in the world—capable of creating 100,000 cubic meters of CLT a year, three times the total amount of architectural CLT consumed in North America annually. All that CLT will be used to produce residences ranging from 20-story apartments to rows of terraced, semi-detached and detached houses at a clip of more than 3,000 per year.

In essence, the plant takes raw timber and turns it into 20-meter CLT panels, which are used as the “chassis” for modular homes and multifamily units. Once the panels are produced, they’re run over 12 stations of largely-machine assembly that do everything from cut out outlets, doors, and windows to laminate and finish gypsum board walls.

The finished “box,” as Dean called it, complete with electrical and plumbing, is then simply craned onto waiting foundations, one level atop another. The best part, Dean said, it that the same method used to build a single family home can also be used to build a 20-story apartment building. “This is a process that can build anything,” he said.

L&G, which boasts $1 trillion under management, has pledged another $650 million for additional plants, according to press reports. Dean is now looking to bring the process to North America and elsewhere. “You can’t cookie-cut a construction company because the skills aren’t there,” Dean said, referencing the labor shortage facing construction. “So we have to get a process in place where we don’t need tradesmen and then replicate that process throughout the world wherever houses are needed.”

But for now, Dean and company will focus on the U.K., where 132,000 homes are built annually but there’s a need for more than 250,000, according to L&G statistics. Dean said local authorities are willing to lease L&G land cheaply over 30 years in exchange for housing infrastructure, including roads and even schools—and of course, affordable housing. And while Dean admitted his plan is threatening to the nation’s construction trades, he said the housing crunch offers them a glimmer of hope, at least in the short term.

“They’ve either got to on board with us or get left behind,” he said. “But we’ve got such a massive housing shortage in the U.K., there’s room for both us right now.”