The Gemini Countryside factory where the houses are built

YOU CAN BE FORGIVEN to believe that most of the building work takes place on site.

But for a local home builder, a large part of the construction phase has been completed at a hidden factory in Cheshire – and at a fraction of the cost of carbon.

Behind Developer Countryside is the large new housing scheme next to Center Park in Warrington, where the former Spectra Packaging site along the Mersey is set to turn into the Rivers Edge estate containing more than 500 homes.

These will be homes in Warrington, for Warrington residents, with a large portion of each home being built at Countryside’s modular factory in Warrington on Europa Boulevard.

A range of panels were built, from the floor to the walls

Our sister with the Warrington Guardian title visited the 185,000-square foot site, or one and a half football pitches in similar terms, to see the home-building process in action.

Arriving at the Gemini factory, which has been in operation for three years, we were greeted by director Neil Stevens, who explained its role in running the homebuilding.

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In essence, workers make timber frame panels that form the floor, walls, ceiling and roof structures, which are then brought in and built as homes on the site.

When Countryside decided to bring this process to its own factories, it chose Warrington because of its location, with transport links to the north of England.

Neil Stevens, director of the Countryside Warrington factory

Neil Stevens, director of the Countryside Warrington factory

It is also well established in Warrington, having developed sites in Appleton Thorn, Winwick and Orford over the past decades.

The company has invested more than £ 30million in the closed panel system to date, and recently celebrated the construction of its 5,000th home using this method.

In Gemini, Countryside employs 68 staff members on the factory floor, with plans to further increase this number by recruiting and training local people.

Workers prepare the timber at the beginning of the process

Workers prepare the timber at the beginning of the process

Timber frame panels built in Warrington are used in Countryside developments in the north of England, from south of Crewe to Middlesborough.

The main benefit of working this way is the environment, where the homebuilder aims to reduce its direct and indirect emissions by 42 percent by 2030.

It also targets to reduce indirect emissions from its supply chain and home users by 52 percent over the same period, with increasing Warrington plant capacity crucial to that goal.

A panel continues the construction process

A panel continues the construction process

Each open panel timber frame house emits 14,460kg less carbon dioxide than a traditional brick-and-block house.

Such is the success achieved by this approach in reducing the cost of carbon, the Gemini plant has seen production almost double since it opened in 2019, and it already has a maximum capacity of 1,400 units a year.

The production process begins in the factory store, where racks of raw materials and fixtures are maintained – materials such as timber, plasterboard, nails, glass for windows and insulation.

Stored glass windows ready to put on panels

The glass windows are stored ready to be placed on the panels

Materials are sourced as locally as possible, including insulation from nearby St Helens, and 99 percent of the waste material is recycled.

These range from wood and plasterboard offcuts to plastic packaging, and even the fabric straps used by cranes to lift panels into place.

From the material store, the first job was to cut pieces of timber to size using machine -controlled but human -operated saws.

Insulation is inserted into the cavities of the panel

Insulation is inserted into the cavities of the panel

Approximately 20 percent of the unit building process involves manual work, with machinery performing most of the physical work.

However, people are still needed, especially in skilled roles to maintain the machinery, with two full-time engineers based at the Gemini site.

Workers are also required to read the plans, so there is a technical aspect to the role as well.

Specialist machinery folds the panels 180 degrees

Specialist machinery folds the panels 180 degrees

Once cut to size, the timber is carried around the factory by conveyer, with the next step to add a damp steam membrane.

Specialist machinery rotates the panel 180 degrees to allow workers to access and work on the other side, where they add insulation and plasterboard.

When complete, the panels are packaged and stored ready to be distributed on the relevant site.

The panels are packaged and loaded ready to head to the Rivers Edge site

The panels are packaged and loaded ready to head to the Rivers Edge site

During our visit we saw panels ready to go to the Rivers Edge site, as well as other rural developments in Yorkshire.

The remaining work will lift them into place by crane in the housing development area, complete the brickwork and fit the roof, as well as mechanical and electrical work.

It’s exciting to gain insight into this new way of working, and with the factory producing approximately 30 completed homes per week, from small terraces to larger apartments, it’s great to see the industry in full flow into town.

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