What is your elevator pitch?
Chris: Modulous is a construction technology company. We’ve come together to create the world’s first globally scalable model for design and delivery of sustainable and affordable homes. To do that we have technology that sits across two product categories; the first of those is the physical product and the second is the digital product. It is where these two come together, the confluence of the two product lines that creates the power of the business model.
The physical product starts with a standardised Kit of Parts, which is a series of sub-assemblies that optimise sustainability, health and wellness and enable the rapid assembly of modular homes. Rather than contractors putting together every last nut and bolt we have pushed production up the supply chain, so our supplier partners are effectively manufacturing wall panels, floor and ceiling cassettes, utility cupboards and so on, which radically simplifies assembly. In essence, it takes a semi-skilled team of five to assemble each module, local to the final site, in about 3 hours. By standardising the invisible the whole process from procurement through to programming becomes more efficient and the architect is free to focus on design intent.
On the digital side we digitise the whole design process from concept to delivery on site. That includes massing, costing and programming. The first part of the platform is a feasibility tool that can be used for site evaluation in real time, giving developers the power to appraise sites without having to engage a design team until they are ready to proceed. This is where that physical meeting digital is so important, because designs are generated using the digital equivalent of our physical Kit of Parts, ensuring accurate costing and programme information is available up front. The software iterates dozens of generative design solutions that are optimised for the developer requirements, for planning requirements, for our environment and sustainability metrics. What they get out isn’t a concept design that needs to be developed with a huge plus or minus on it, it’s a design that is technically accurate and that has procurement from a supply chain that sits behind it, so the costs are real.
Ajay: We have a very ambitious target for getting to low carbon and zero carbon in the next 9 years. We want to bring our scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 emissions down to zero by 2030. Also, we are running whole life carbon analysis on the Kit of Parts. We have already created a benchmark and we want to start bringing this down. We are evolving the product with lots of iterations and design calculation checks to make it good for people and the environment.
When we set out to create a sustainability strategy, we were clear we wanted to be a force for good. Not just in terms of building homes to address the housing crisis but also to help the local communities where we are building, who will be upskilled to build those homes. We therefore came up with four pillars of sustainability centred on people and planet.
- Creating healthy homes, using harmless construction materials as well as thermally, visually and acoustically comfortable spaces that are also well ventilated.
- Resource efficiency: this is about creating homes that use energy, water and materials sensibly and create virtues cycles. We specify very high-quality products that are responsibility sourced and harmless for people and environment so they can be used for a long time. One of the things we have been working on for our Kit of Parts is design for disassembly and providing a manual to show how each of these products can be dismantled. We are using digitised material passports, so at the end of the life of the building each component will have a guide for reuse rather than recycling wherever possible. As part of this aim, we’re working with UKGBC Circular Economy forum.
- Promoting social equality and enabling others to build homes for all. This means multi-generational communities or homes that people can live in for their whole life, so as needs change the homes can adapt.
- Building communities: we want to create homes that people are proud of, not cookie cutter solutions. They have a unique identity and people can identify with these homes.
Chris: When we started Modulous, sustainability and health and wellness were key driving factors, so it has been part of that journey from the original design of the Kit of Parts and the idea of creating healthy homes. We see a lot of emphasis on sustainability in terms of energy efficiency and carbon intensity, and people kind of talk about healthy homes, but we want these two things to be on par with each other. For us sustainability is a holistic vision that covers both people and environment.
How did your start-up get to where it is today?
Chris: The founders came together in 2018, largely from engineering or construction backgrounds. We were becoming increasingly aware of how inefficient it was to start each project from scratch. So, we started to form this idea of how we might digitise ourselves to become more process-driven and to use off-site construction to address the housing crisis. Very quickly, we started to put together a value proposition that went beyond a digital design tool and beyond being another MMC provider and really looked at that full end-to-end delivery mechanism. What we really want to do is enable: that is core to what we talk about; enabling others to provide homes through our platform.
Ajay: The key here is that we are a technology-driven company, so we are bringing people in from other industries where technology has matured. That is a skill that is really lacking in the construction industry, therefore by bringing those heads together we are on a much better footing to make sure the technology product that we are going to create will be something that will really work.
Chris: In our first year we were part of the RElab accelerator programme, hosted by the Goldacre family here in London. We had one week with them right before the pandemic then went virtually, but that was an amazing opportunity that connected us with great like-minded start-ups in the space, but also a whole host of people we still talk to who are beneficial to our growth today.
What does innovation mean to you?
Ajay: We have a few core values in the business, one of them is courage. For us courage is very important to drive things and improve upon existing ways of doing things. It is about refusing the status quo and confronting the issues around it and trying to create solutions with partners that can be for the greater good.
Chris: We see opportunity where peoples’ answer is somewhere along the lines of “that is how it has always been done”. To us that is a spot that is ripe for innovation. There are opportunities where people are just continuing down the path of least resistance. For innovation to happen you have to be willing to be uncomfortable because you are stepping into an unknown.
How hungry is the built environment for innovation?
Chris: It depends. I am an engineer by background and that is a very standard engineer response. I think we are seeing more and more across the ecosystem who are interested in innovation, and I say interested very specifically: within that group there are a smaller subset who are actually starting to innovate and work with innovators. There is a whole group that says we want to innovate but want to see others do it first. For us it is about finding those partners who are truly innovative, whether its supply chain partners who have really ambitious climate change agendas or contracting partners who are looking at how to do things differently. Finding those organisations and cultivating those relationships is key to us. There is an appetite for it, I think a lot of innovation is coming from outside the industry as people are seeing opportunity in a place that was very stagnant for a long time.
Ajay: In our zone of influence, housing has been unaffordable to many people for a long time. The profit margins for all stakeholders are often squeezed. That is a great opportunity for innovation to happen where we can create efficiencies in the process and deliver homes for all that are affordable to run and build.
Where resources are really squeezed, for example within Local Authorities, that is a good opportunity for innovation as they want to deliver homes for people that are affordable but good quality. They have a responsibility there towards the local communities. They are open for innovation. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with them it has been easier to push things through than with private organisations who are used to doing things a certain way.
What needs to change to help encourage more innovation?
Ajay: For me incentivising is very important. There must be incentives for positive change, either through the regulatory models or from the government. These can get people to look at things in a different way. I also feel there has to be some level of regulation which compels people to make innovative changes. For example, in France since a couple of years ago every public building is required to employ reused materials. That really forces the market to look up and start creating mechanisms to collect and salvage materials, process them and certify them for further reuse, and then sell them back into the market. There has not yet been enough momentum in the UK, but a lot of work has been done around circular economies and the GLA for example now requires a circular economy statement. This will make people look at things in more detail and make meaningful changes in the entire supply chain. It goes back to the carrot and stick approach, there needs to be regulation and incentives for positive change
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a start-up?
Chris: Covid, for one. And as a young company, a lot of the challenges faced have been internal, coalescing the offer and figuring out what the value proposition is, that is truly meaningful for the outside world. But I guess the greatest challenge for us, and most start-ups, is capital and access to funds. If I look back those first few years, trying to figure out how we can fund the idea that we know is going to be truly transformational without having big banks of money from the UK or private funding, it was a big challenge. I think it’s a challenge faced by most start-ups.
What’s your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment?
Chris: Go talk to all the start-ups you can. The lessons learnt from other founders and start-ups is invaluable. The accelerator programmes are great because they get you access to fundraising programmes, classes on pitching and so on, but the real value is the ecosystem that happens amongst the specific cohort that you are in. From the RElab programme there are still two or three we are in close contact with and as well as understanding what you are going through, a peer group can make introductions. Everyone we have met so far has been very kind in opening up and giving access to rather than protecting their contacts and resources.
Also, get fundraising early. Get your information together and be as professional as you can with everything you are showing to the outside world.
What’s next for your company?
Ajay: We are a product-based business so the biggest thing is the launch of our digital product in the last quarter this year. From a sustainability perspective we have a very ambitious plan for the next 9 years. By 2030 we want to get to net zero carbon, so that is the biggest one for us to aim for. We are actively looking for new recruits who can help us reach these goals.
Chris: In the near term on the physical product in the UK, we are going to pilot projects on a number of sites. Our next project is a fully affordable housing scheme with a registered provider with a ground and first floor community centre and church and 33 homes above. There is also a project in Bristol with the City Council and one in Manchester with another registered provider. In the US this year, we are looking at creating a show home that’s viable for all stakeholders from project suppliers to developers and contractors. Its’ going to be a big year for us, and we are ready!