25 Oct 2016

Digitising Custom Build shares planning, design and sales best practice for visualising choice

Digitising Custom Build shares planning, design and sales best practice for visualising choice

Digitising Custom Build shared its findings at a one-day conference last month. Custom Build Strategy brings you the key learning points relating to planning, design and sales, shared by some of the sector’s biggest influencers. Use them to inform your practice and to help you present the benefits of custom build to stakeholders, from local authorities to potential home owners.

Michael Kohn, CEO and founder of Stickyworld

As lead partner on the project, Kohn stressed that technology puts the customer at the heart of the process. Digitising enables a collaborative approach that allows all parties to contribute to the process.

“Stickyworld already offers its technology commercially to local authority and developer customers – such as the public consultation at Hexham Market, as shown. This is facilitated community engagement made with a 360 degree mobile phone,” said Kohn.

“The same capabilities are being used by large contractors and facility managers for internal communications in commercial buildings, but the technology could also be used for user guides or to communicate between developers and designers and their custom build customers. Stickyworld’s team is now testing these uses with forward-thinking custom builders like Blueprint/Igloo, CZero and Inhabit Homes.”

Stickyworld's online portal

Stickyworld’s online 360 communication tool allows people to look around a proposal and comment by leaving digital sticky notes

“People react far more quickly to visual communication than written, and these days customers educate themselves on the web. Consequently, you need content and you need to make it easy for the customer to engage with it,” he said.

Tools like these enable the visualisation process, which helps councils with community feedback. As well as allowing you to create customer communities, these systems also enable private customer conversations about processes and systems. “Digitising offers scope to make this whole process customer-focussed,” he added.

Custom build is ahead of the curve with customer engagement, and this communication is two way, in that it tells you what people want, but also enable you to inform your offering.

Rory Bergin, partner at HTA Design LLP

As part of the Digitising Custom Build project HTA is developing a configurator for its Potton-manufactured home at HomeMade in Heartlands, Igloo’s 54 custom-build site in Cornwall, for which it won a recent AJ-100 award.

While demonstratimg the configurator, Bergin explained the communication process that digitising supports. Specifically, the software enables HTA in visualising choice for the customer for its house type at Heartlands, supporting and simplifying the route to a customised home. The online tool could be applied to any base house type in a custom-build environment, and from this starting point easily allow parameters, such as materials, finishes, energy efficiency, layouts and more, to be manipulated as a basic house type is customised.

house configurator

HTA’s house configurator for Potton at Heartlands

The configurator enables the customer to generate an initial design that reflects personal choices, backed up by build and running costs. All of this is created within the protective envelope of a design code that offers confidence to planners and other neighbours.

“It’s an exchange of information that tells the customer exactly what they’re going to get,” says Bergin. “It enables you to drill down into the information about their design, without having repeated conversations, with the added benefit that the data produced can be used to inform your product.

“The technology enables the customer to experiment online, and come to you knowing what their cost expectations are, effectively, can they afford it. It also reduces the amount of pricing information that suppliers need to send out.”

All of this can be done at a very early stage, prior to any serious sales conversations, empowering the consumer and demonstrating the potential, and implications of, choice in a mass bespoke housing environment.

What’s more, the technology can easily be adapted on a masterplan basis to illustrate what plots are available, and when they’re available, and also to demonstrate the range of houses that the planners, or the public, could expect to see on these plots. Take a look at the configurator at www.creatomus.com

Gus Zogolovitch, founder, Inhabit Homes

For Zogolovitch, a lack of knowledge about custom build is one of the major barriers to growth for the sector, so education is vital to its success, and digitising can facilitate this communication.

Zogolovitch referred to three major pressure points in the market: customers; agents (as custom build doesn’t integrate with conventional sales platforms, such as online portals like Rightmove); and stakeholders (such as valuers, mortgage brokers and building inspectors).

As part of this, there are several key messages that custom build developers and enablers need to convey to the purchasers about the process, to illustrate its differences from a conventional purchase route:

  1.  Visualising choice is paramount. Because there isn’t a physical house to walk around people need help to understand the space and the options on offer.
  2.  Up-front sales: To access discounts like CIL you need people signed up from the start, before the incentives click in. Effectively, with custom build you’re selling them a house before you’ve put a spade in the ground.
  3.  Timings: Because of their early involvement with the project, customers are exposed to time delays, especially through planning, that they just wouldn’t experience on a traditional spec build. This needs to be explained.

Custom build is pre-off plan, and consequently you have to manage the customer’s expectations about what this means,” says Zogolovitch.

“Digital technology allows you to visualise schemes, whether on web platforms or even through virtual reality. This then enables you to manage the communication process, right through to post completion,” he said. “Developers and designers need to make sure that everything complicated is boiled down to a simple, and accessible format, ideally on the web.”

Carl Vann, partner at architects Pollard Thomas Edwards

Illustrating how the theory can be put into practice, Vann explained how PTE used technology to illustrate and provide choice at Beechwood West, Swan Housing Association’s  250-unit custom build site in Basildon.

“From the start, Swan was committed to custom build leading the appearance of the scheme, but it wanted to manage expectations through a fixed palette of choices as part of a design code. It knew that this would bring balance and unity to the variety that comes with a mass bespoke homes project,” said Vann.

PTE had to create a masterplan with numerous house types, which fitted in with Swan’s ambition to provide its tagline of: A million options to delivery. To do this it used digital technology to visualise the choice. It created a palette of external finishes, configurations and specifications, all based on a range of house types.

“We looked at ways to include simple changes to meet the million choices – from materials, rooms in the roof options, with or without cutaway roofs, to services placed strategically that enabled living and dining rooms to be easily swapped,” says Vann. “The only thing we didn’t free up was window positions which needed to be standardised as we were working on minimum areas.”

PTE visualising choice

PTE visualisation showing a house type rendered with a range of materials

As well as giving Swan its million permutations, visualising choice was key in helping Basildon Borough Council engage with the project at planning. PTE provided a series of set views for the proposal that demonstrated base options rendered to reflect variations of the palette.

Doing this meant it could demonstrate the vitality and character of the scheme, while also reassuring the council about the quality and overall look. This visualisation also became a unique selling point for the scheme, helping to overcome the education message that is so key for custom build.

There were plenty more speakers on the day, so for more about Digitising Custom Build, or to test some of the prototype technologies, visit Customise Homes.

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