Charlotte Hale is Operations Director of SO Modular – a rapidly expanding timber frame manufacturer with headquarters in Neath, South Wales.
The firm was established in 1996 as a purpose-made joiner, now it designs and manufactures innovative timber frame components for national homebuilders, contractors, and housing associations across the UK – all from its sustainable and energy efficient 250,000 sq ft manufacturing facility: The Old Metal Box Factory.
As a woman in a historically male-dominated industry, we asked Charlotte about how she sees the industry developing, where the challenges and opportunities lie, and how important sustainability and the circular economy are for the future of the construction sector.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities?
The biggest opportunity for us is simply the rapid growth of demand in the modular housing and timber frame market in the UK. That is driven by a combination of factors. Government targets intended to increase the number of houses being built is one part of that as is a plethora of targets and standards being introduced to reduce carbon emissions from the housing sector.
In Wales specifically, we commend the Welsh Government for what they have done to encourage the use of timber and their sustainability plans and goals. Their Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 set out a vision to increase environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing in the country.
Furthermore, our industry has been one of the least innovative for centuries and now the sector is starting to accelerate in terms of its uptake in innovative solutions and ideas and it’s becoming the norm. Therefore, I believe where there is innovation there lies countless opportunities.
As a woman working in the construction industry, how do you see opportunities opening up for other women to enter the sector?
The number of women working in construction has been increasing steadily for several years and I will always be an advocate for women in construction but with a massive skills shortage in the industry, which is only forecast to get worse. Arguably, there has never been a better time to enter the construction industry for young people, not just women.
The Construction Skills Network states that more than a quarter of a million extra construction workers will be needed in the UK by 2026. In Wales alone, this will mean some 12,000 extra workers will be needed.
That simply means opportunities for all young people entering the industry, whatever their gender. It means more opportunities to learn, train and for career progression. We are looking at setting up a centre of excellence at our headquarters to play our part in solving this challenge.
For women specifically, there are also many more role models than there were previously. There are a growing number of women in senior roles who younger women and girls can look up to. Schools are doing important work around this as are many industry bodies. But, in short, construction offers great career opportunities for anyone right now willing to learn and work hard.
What is the biggest challenge facing SO Modular in the next 12 months?
Uncertainty around the costs of materials and labour. They are our biggest challenges and have been for some time.
The cost of materials has skyrocketed and that has put pressure on many parts of the industry and the supply chain. We believe the situation will ease over time and we are working extremely closely with our supply chain and are doing everything within our power to minimise the effects. We are also huge supporters of any investments into the reforestation of Wales and the wider UK to ensure adequate supply is available, which is crucial to construction, our economy and more importantly our planet.
In terms of labour, the shortage in the UK is well documented. In construction specifically, figures from the Office for National Statistics covering the first quarter of 2022 suggest there are almost 40,000 job vacancies in the sector in the UK right now – the highest number since records began in 2001.
For me, this represents a great opportunity for young people seeking a great career. On the back of this, we are looking to set up a training centre and Centre of Excellence in our new headquarters, details of which should become clear later this year.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything you do as a business. What kind of things does this mean?
For SO Modular, the very core of our business is based on sustainability but, equally, every business decision is made considering the implications of sustainability.
This is a driver for us across all aspects of the business. It is embedded in our culture. We source all materials locally where possible and for some time now we have sourced the majority of our timber from Welsh-grown forests. We are the largest purchaser of Welsh Timber.
In our new factory, we also have a biomass boiler with carbon filters, and we recycle a very high percentage of all our materials. The entire site is almost self-sufficient – it follows the principles of the circular economy.
We have sustainably redefined our new headquarters and restored the site to its former glory but in an innovative and eco-friendly way; we want it to be a landmark of the town again, which the community can be proud of, while also benefiting the local supply chain and keeping jobs and money in the region.