24 Aug 2016

Digitising Custom Build’s Michael Kohn asks: “Are you ready to engage with your market?”

Michael Kohn
CEO and founder
Digitising Custom Build’s Michael Kohn asks: “Are you ready to engage with your market?”

Digitising Custom Build is a pivotal piece of research and development for the custom homes sector commissioned by the National Custom and Self Build Association with funding from Innovate UK. Ahead of the one day expo to share its progress, Custom Build Strategy spoke to Michael Kohn, CEO and founder of Stickyworld, about the project.

“Digitising Custom Build is about simplifying the sector’s route to home ownership, from initial planning stages to manuals for residents post-completion,” says Kohn. “It’s about enabling and, indirectly, scaling up custom build,” he adds. “But while technology will play a major part in growing the industry, scaling up is as much to do with an increased awareness of, and demand for, the route.”

The project has been investigating a range of applications for technology, including desktop studies based around back-end data management, the challenges of designing customised homes and providing systems that monitor post-occupation elements, such as energy use. To meet this brief the project is creating a suite of technology tools that are currently being tested.

Customer focussed

The consortium of partners includes several disciplines, including software developers, such Stickyworld and Commusoft, and homebuilders and designers, such as Potton and HTA, and more. Because Stickyworld is a communications platform, it enables users to upload all kinds of content that put the customer at the heart of a company’s business.

“Digitising Custom Build is using technology to create improved customer communications that enable the partners to maintain a dialogue in a timely manner. This then empowers decision making,” says Kohn. “What seems like a one-to-one conversation for the customer is actually a one-to-many conversation for the designers, developers and sales and marketing staff. Digitising this process can simplify this.” Custom build is a logical choice for these construction technologies, as by its very nature it has a declared interest in customer choice. Kohn also sees the project as having massive scope in the wider building arena.

We’re living in a world where the customer is king. Every industry now has a far greater emphasis on choice and, consequently, on data gathering to help empower and fuel that choice. Custom build is uniquely in tune with this trend, far more so than volume house building,” he says.

A major remit for Digitising Custom Build is the development of prototypes that showcase potential, as well as real projects that will be applicable to the industry. The project now supports various products in Beta testing, including HTA/Potton’s house configurator, developed by Slider Studio, and a range of interactive content chat rooms developed by Stickyworld – in collaboration with project partners and early Beta testers. These include a ‘virtual showroom’ for sales and marketing teams, a ‘design review room’ for client design involvement, and a video and Internet of Things-supported ‘home user guide’ tool for training and handing over the building to the end customer.

HTA/Potton's housing configurator

HTA/Potton’s configurator allows users to easily customise their home

However, testing is complicated by the lengthy timelines involved in house building, which means that data to feed back into the system can be slow to source. “This is further complicated with custom build, in that so many projects are still in their early stages,” adds Kohn. “But we expect to see adoption as and when major developments reach the right stage.

“I’d love to see more developers trying the community-led tools to help them achieve planning permission,” says Kohn, “and we’re always keen to hear from any partners interested in getting involved. And despite the timelines, we’ve had considerable positive interest from custom build companies, which shows an appetite for the system,” he says.

Digitising Custom Build and collaboration

According to Kohn, one of the barriers to developing digital tools for custom homes is the lack of unified direction within the industry, which has so far grown organically. “Custom build is still proving its model, and while the large range of solutions makes for a vibrant and innovative sector, it also makes developing universal tools tricky.”

Quite simply, he points out that for technology to be effective it needs to be applied to a process where the build elements are going to be repeated frequently and affordably. “This is a precursor to making a viable product,” he says, “Standardising the sector will enable us to create a product that can help manage the complexity of what custom builders are offering, including communications and design choices,” he says.

Learning points for the sector
Technology puts customers at the heart of your business offering – facilitating feedback that then refines your product
Digitising the process will enable scaling up, with greater opportunities for affordability
The sector must share, and drill down into, its experience to establish pressure points and commonality
Settling on a dominant model will facilitate digitising the sector
Visualisation of choice is imperative for growth, both for planning departments and house purchasers

To help get to this point, Kohn advocates a greater level of transparency and collaboration between industry players across the board, very few of whom are actually in direct competition. “Without this, the risk is that you’re developing software and technology that is itself customised business-by-business, which is costly and won’t really help scale the sector up. It’s difficult to design technology for processes that aren’t fully understood and clear, and this confused message will be what the consumer hears too, ultimately.

If custom build really wants to make an impact and provide a viable alternative to the volume producers, the players need to have more conversations about standardising its models,” he says.

“Until the industry shares some common processes it will limit its own ability to scale up. NaCSBA is already active in sharing experiences to source commonality, Now its members need to start drilling down in a smart way into what the generic experience of the market is, together with its pain points. This is essential for the market to grow.”

Improving the customer experience

Part of Digitising Custom Build is recognising the different roles where technology can be used to help filter and interpret customer choice, from a whole project level to individual tailored homes. By its nature, custom build is all about choice, whether it be house design, layout or fixtures and fittings, and the sector needs to manage its interpretation of choice to effectively digitise, states Kohn.

“You need to manage the customer’s expectations. The reality is that the more choice you have, the more time you spend managing that process, and the more costs you have associated with delivering that choice.

“Developers need to decide if they’re offering a free-for-all service that’s going to create a unique home, or a product that will result in a tailored home based on a suite of choices. In the latter case, there need to be limitations in the choice to help streamline that process, which will enable the technology to play a greater role. But it’s the industry that needs to decide what custom build actually looks like in the UK.”

Visualising ideas

Across the board, visualisation of greater choice is a new discipline that’s key for custom homes. This could include presenting an array of options to planners for a custom build development or a variety of home configurations, including cost indicators, for individual houses – both of which the Digitising Custom Build project is investigating. And the technology is vital in supplying this. Councils in particular want security about choices. Consequently, custom builders will need to simulate what the different choices for a site will be to help gain support at this stage.

Technology gives you access to the customer feedback that will inform your future activity as a company. Ultimately, the customer becomes a major stakeholder, and it’s key that you can use technology to engage and enable them with their build, then feed this back into your business.”

To this end, Stickyworld is working with the sales and marketing teams of companies including Czero Home and Inhabit on Beta testing with customers. “This is a learning curve across the board, as we’re building the technology that will help them bring custom build to market. It comes down to: ‘Are you ready to engage your target market?’ And we’ve got an open door and would love to hear from more companies keen to get involved with this phase,” he adds.

Beyond the project

Interestingly, Digitising Custom Build has attracted attention from the US, an unexpected source. It has a major US custom builder (a process more akin to having a single house built by a commissioned architect) interested in buying into the technology, and a luxury home builder wanting greater customer engagement to help it improve its product. This alone demonstrates the attraction of digitisation.

Summing up, Kohn feels that to help custom build fulfil its potential, companies operating in the sector need to engage with the technology that will track customer choice. This will enable them to demonstrate its scope and flexibility, whether it be to a planning authority or a first-time customer considering a tailor-made home. And to do this, the industry needs to settle on a dominant model, or set of models, which it can then realistically digitise to simplify and scale the process.

“But this is not to diminish the massive gains that custom build has made in the last few years in transforming the housing supply route through greater choice. It’s about moving it to the next stage. It’s important to keep perspective on the gains made and how young the sector still is. The scope for the future is enormous,” he adds.

Editor’s comment

As a sector, custom build needs to consolidate it’s offering. Not only will this help the market digitise, as Kohn points out, which will help it to scale up, but this will enable it to become a recognised model in the eyes of the public. And it’s essential that people come to house building with a degree of understanding about custom build. Digitising facilitates customer engagement, which will improve individual business offerings — it holds the key to growth. I strongly recommend you sign up to the expo to discover more about Digitising Custom Build.

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