Most of us think of homes being built with bricks or, at a push, timber, but Les Dawson of Uniblock doesn’t so much want to blow your house down as revolutionise the way you build it.
In many ways, Uniblock is a perfect good news story that chimes with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to get more social housing built across the North of England and opening a factory in Scunthorpe, still reeling from the closure of British Steel.
Dawson, 56, also shows that you don’t have to be a bearded hipster living in Shoreditch to have a cutting-edge start-up idea. His Uniblock system slashes the amount of time it takes to put up the walls of a new home from six weeks to under a fortnight. Rather than painstakingly laying brick by brick, Uniblock uses concrete-filled sandwiches of high-density polystyrene, which is quicker and easier to build with and offering greater heat insulation.
Dawson spent 14 years in the Army having taken part in the Falklands War and then ran several businesses in Asia for 15 years before returning to England. “When I came back to the UK seven years ago, I was a bit of a loss as to what to do,” he admits.
He saw an opportunity in 2016 to license Uniblock for 25 years from its Canadian developer, Polycrete. Uniblock’s Inserted Concrete Form (ICF) technology has already been licenced for the French market and licensor Saint-Gobain owns a factory in Norway producing blocks.
ICF has been around since the early 1960s, predominantly being used in North America and on the Continent, and Dawson saw an opportunity to launch the block in the UK market.
The UK housing construction market is 70 per cent brick and block, 20 per cent timber frame, and just 10 per cent other, of which ICF represents 2 per cent. However, in the USA, ICF is 10 per cent of the house build market, “so the size of the UK market should be huge,” says Dawson.
“I thought with a pedigree like that, launching in the UK market would be extremely easy,” he says.
What Dawson underestimated was the conservatism of the UK construction industry. He spent a couple of years toiling away as a one-man-band, trying to convert minds but found it extremely hard going. Until he won The Start-Up Series, that is.
Dawson became a Start-Up Series winner in November 2018 and has received £250,000 of investment so far through a mixture of Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) money from The Start-Up Series Fund, along with expert mentoring from Worth Capital.
Apart from the validation that came after having slogged away on his own for so long, the Start-Up Series investment has enabled Dawson to open his own factory in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire and to dramatically ramp up the amount of production he can do.
Uniblock is on track to be used in five planned housing estate developments over the coming year, bringing affordable, state-of-the-art and eco-friendly housing to some of England’s most deprived areas.
How important was winning The Start-Up Series funding and what has Worth Capital done for your business?
Initially, the investment allowed me to create a much-needed website and underlined that I wasn’t actually going mental! Somebody else out there thought this was a business idea that had potential. It wasn’t just the money; it was the moral support from Worth Capital, which I still appreciate today. It’s that validation, the recognition of the six years of hard work which had gone into it and got us to where we are today.
Further along, the investment from The Start-Up Series Fund has enabled Uniblock to establish its own manufacturing plant in Scunthorpe, producing the blocks rather than importing them. We currently have eight full-time staff, but we plan to expand that to 40 across two shifts.
Apart from the equity investment, how has winning the competition affected Uniblock?
Having Worth Capital co-founder Matthew Cushen on the board, with his in-depth knowledge of marketing, meant he could help advise and steer me when we had another investment offer. He helped me with selling equity in the business to property developer Paul Rothwell, who had the foresight to see the benefits of building with Uniblock.
‘If you truly believe in what you’re doing and work hard at it, you can make it happen’
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
When the pandemic hit, I was quite concerned that our factory had to be following correct social distancing procedures. However, since lockdown, we have been working in a totally secure controlled environment. To be honest, the impact of COVID-19 has been minimal. If anything, it’s been a positive.
What changes have you had to make because of coronavirus?
When the Government announced that flammable building materials could not be used in buildings over 11 metres tall, our project portfolio needed to mirror the current changes. The pandemic has given our business the breathing space to optimise processes and get stock in place ready for the release of lockdown. COVID-19 has enabled us to optimise those factory processes and catch up on production so that we’ve got stock. It’s been extremely fortunate timing for us. We would not have been able to do that without Covid, changing over from high-rise to housing projects.
What is the outlook for Uniblock now?
At the moment we’re negotiating contracts on delivering numerous contracts nationwide all using Uniblock. Empire currently has a pipeline of 3,702 new build units across 18 developments in Yorkshire, the North West and Northumberland.
Plus we’re starting work with the Government’s housing accelerator Homes England to build houses in our home town of Scunthorpe, where we’re working with North Lincolnshire County Council. They’re very excited because it’s a large-scale home building manufactured locally.
It’s hard for everybody at the moment. But there’s worse things that have happened to us all and we’ve all just got to get on with it and drive forward. If you’re a start-up, nothing is ever easy but if you truly believe in what you’re doing and work hard at it, you can make it happen.