In many rural parts of Scotland there is a housing crisis. It is a crisis driven in large part by depopulation – where younger residents are driven to migrate out of these small communities to larger towns and cities due to poor career prospects or spiralling living costs.
It is a problem that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where people who live in cities are attracted to living in rural towns and villages for a change of lifestyle.
On the face of it, this seems like a win-win for rural areas: people in larger urban areas sell their homes at an inflated price due to the buoyancy of the housing market with the hope that they will see an increased quality of life.
They dream of a lifestyle that is quieter, with a cheaper cost of living. Meanwhile, those in these rural communities’ experience rising house prices, making the prospect of selling more attractive, which then has a knock-on effect by bringing more money into the community.
That is the theory, and in practice it works. Somewhat. The obvious downside of this is that people who do want to stay in these communities find themselves priced out of them The effects of depopulation are compounded when local housing stock is more expensive to buy and rent. Local landlords also capitalising on the rural boom and selling off, reducing the local rental options.
So, instead of solving the problem of depopulation, the reality is that what simply happens is more of a population transfer.
The perfect storm
The solution to depopulation is to boost local communities, but to do that you need to keep people in the community by providing affordable housing and jobs. Because these rural communities are further afield from commercial centres, it is increasingly difficult for local authorities and house builders to build quality, affordable housing in these remote rural areas.
Further complicating this is the existing expensiveness of the housing provision that already exists in these areas – house prices and rental payments are far beyond the means of the wages available in local jobs. So whilst higher house prices might be a boon for rural homeowners, that is not the case for numerous residents in these areas.
This is an issue affecting many rural communities, including Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. So the Newcastleton & District Community Trust (NDCT), a community anchor organisation created in 2015 which aims to increase the fortunes of the area, decided that they wanted to try to fix the problem.
Using local resources to solve a housing crisis
Their proposed solution is a project called “Factory to the Forest”, a partnership between NDCT, The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and Mass Timber Academy. The aim of the project is to develop a mobile factory to manufacture non-glued solid (dowel) laminated timber panels from locally grown forest resources thus enabling remote rural communities in Scotland such as Newcastleton, to construct genuinely affordable houses themselves by utilising the community’s own resources.
The objective is to empower their local community, allowing them to become self-sufficient in addressing their housing needs through the learning and application of new skills providing new well paid sustainable jobs and they can reduce their carbon footprint in support of a move to Net Zero., following the principles of Just Transition.
By encouraging the community to use their own resources (land and forest), two of the largest costs in house construction (house plots and structural materials) are removed or substantially diminished. By training community members to use the mobile factory to fabricate modern, sustainable construction products from renewable materials to meet their own needs, the local skill base is not only increased, but also unlocks the potential to develop new business activities suited to the rural environment.
The result is not just affordable housing, it is jobs, and it also represents a genuine chance for the growth of the local economy and becomes a driver to deliver community wealth building
How it works
Their plan goes something like this: once the timber is felled in the local forest, it is then processed in a mobile factory, thus literally taking the factory to the forest. The factory consists of a portable sawmill, mobile kiln, planning machine, dowel lamination press and mobile CNC cutting machine.
Dowel laminated timber consist of non-glued arrangements of stacked boards, cross laminated boards and cross/diagonal laminated boards. These are connected using different dowel options -hardwood fluted (ridged) or threaded hardwood rods are the most common types, whilst compressed softwood rods and a dowelling method that involves high speed rotation welding to activate the lignin in the wood to produce a ‘glued’ bond have also undergone extensive R&D but are not yet commercially produced.
Why dowel laminated timber?
Dowel laminated timber panels are not a well-known construction technology in the UK (there are no manufacturers here), however it is widely used in central Europe where there are more than 20 factories producing different types of dowel laminated timber. The largest DLT factory in the world is in Vancouver, Canada, from which the company, StructureCraft is producing panels for all types of new buildings across north America.
There are many positive benefits to the use of solid engineered timber panels – precision manufacture, speed of construction, high levels of airtightness and thermal performance, minimising fuel usage, reduced number of layers/materials in walls and roof build-ups, high levels of carbon sequestration, improved internal air quality, etc. as well as improved health and safety on site.
Panel manufacture is entirely of wood elements, with no toxic emissions (VOCs). Production is possible at a much smaller scale and investment level than the better-known and more widely used cross laminated timber (CLT). Of all the solid laminate timber systems available, it is the one most suited to small-scale local manufacture.
The end product
With the panels being manufactured locally, next to the site of the construction, they will then be assembled by people in the community according to a schematic that was conceived by Mass Timber Academy. The result will be more homes in the local community, an increase in jobs, enhanced skills within the community and growth to the local economy.
How CEIS and Interface helped
Having worked with NDCT through our Just Enterprise programme, they were already familiar with the work of CEIS. More recently we have been working together with Interface in a partnership called Inclusive Innovation. A programme that is designed to provide third sector organisations with access to support and funding options to make ideas that do good a reality.
Through the Inclusive Innovation programme, together with Interface we helped NDCT to receive funding and academic support. This led to bringing the University of Strathclyde’s National Manufacturing Institute Scotland to come on board.
The project has three development stages, and stage 1 of the “Forest to the Factor” initiative is awaiting confirmation of funding , it is hoped that the detailed R&D work will begin will begin in late 2022/early 2023.
We’re proud to have been a part of such pioneering work, and we hope that this model can be utilised in other rural areas around Scotland. Such innovation was only made possible by teaming with Interface to provide NCDT access to the knowledge within academia to help bring this project to fruition.