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The £60k house throws up a Verry big surprise

HOUSING - Verry may not be a giant among house builders, but its German partner, WeberHaus, helped its consortium secure a much coveted place in the £60,000 house competition.Steve Menary reports

THE APPEARANCE of William Verry among the nine consortia asked by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to build a house for £60,000 was a surprise.

Most of the firms to emerge from more than 100 bidders in the Design for Manufacture competition were big house builders such as Barratt, Wimpey and Redrow. Those who had heard of Verry knew it as a London-based contractor with a long history in office refurbishment and, more recently, schools work but no track record in private housing.

How Verry made it onto that select list is a tale that stretches from the City of London to the Baltic state of Latvia and on to Germany.

Verry group managing director John Gibson says: 'We have always done a lot of work in the City on banks and were working on a job for Kleinwort Benson in Fenchurch Street.

'Out of that job, we were approached by a syndicate about going to Latvia to build houses. That was never viable but I went to Riga with Valdis Steins, the exdeputy chair of parliament in Latvia, and it was clear that the area was bristling with life. It was a really vibrant place and I sort of fell in love with it.' Having emerged from the Soviet Bloc just over a decade ago, Latvia was keen on companies with the sort of history Verry can boast ? the business was founded in 1832.

Returning from the Baltic, Mr Gibson put together a plan that would eventually lead him to Mr Prescott's Design for Manufacture competition.

Ver ry bought 55 ha of land just outside Riga with a plan to build 125 houses and 60 flats on one plot, 34 houses and 64 plots on another and a factory to prefabricate the homes on the third.

'We wanted a timber frame house from Germany or Austria that we could get up quickly, ' says Mr Gibson.

'So we went and spoke to companies in Germany.' That led to contact with WeberHaus, a German company that manufacturers houses in panel sections.

Another German prefabricated house builder, Hufhaus, had already made inroads into the UK, providing one-off homes using a stick system that brought it welcome publicity in Channel 4's Grand Designs TV show.

Mr Gibson adds: 'WeberHaus asked me about the market in the UK and I told them about the stigma here towards prefabricated homes and then John Prescott's competition came along.' Perhaps fortunately for Verry, the Latvian proposal began to slow down. The Baltic state did not have a planning system that bears compar ison with the UK and approvals were made on an ad hoc basis.

After joining the European Union, the Latvians had to implement the sort of five-year plans that are the norm in the UK and this slowed down Verry's plans, allowing it to concentrate on English Partnerships' Design for Manufacture competition instead.

Verry, which had built homes for housing associations and local authorities but not for private sale, linked up with make, the architectural practice set up by Sir Norman Foster's former partner, Ken Shuttleworth.

WeberHaus joined Verry's bid along with Aylesbury house builder Saxon Homes, a subsidiary of developer Roxylight.

As WeberHaus provides homes for grand houses in Germany and not the sort of small units Mr Prescott wants, Verry Homes was set up to build out the unit to avoid the perception that the German manufacturer had gone downmarket.

The team was asked to bid for three plots but only priced two. Mr Gibson says: 'We got offered one in Newport Pagnell but there was a lot of competition.' Verry's team won both its bids. It is building 102 units in Aylesbury that are being designed by make and a dozen in Hastings being designed by another architect, Radley House Partnership. 'We came out of nowhere, ' admits Mr Gibson. 'No one knew whether the other homes would be free of snagging as there was no history, but WeberHaus has been building these houses for 50 years in Germany.

'The wall is made in the factory with insulation and conduits, door frames, rendered to a base coat and plasterboard on internally.

'In the factory, a complete dry wall is placed in a container and shipped over. We prepare the concrete base and the walls are bolted into place. The house is up and watertight by the end of the day. There's no sending bricklayers home and on day two you're working on the inside of the house.' The only hitch for Verry's team is that, although WeberHaus's homes are single-skin, they are too energy-efficient.

Mr Gibson explains: 'We've had to downgrade them because of the economics and also to satisfy organisations like the National House Building Council, which insists we provide a house with a cavity. I think it's a nonsense we've got to do that, to downgrade the houses.' Despite that, WeberHaus has plans to eventually double production in Germany from about 800 units with demand from the UK fuelling part of this growth.

For Verry, which drifted into the ownership of first development giant Land Securities then contractor Harry Neal in 1970 before being rescued from going under by a management buyout led by Mr Gibson, housing is providing a remarkable new venture.

When Mr Gibson took control in 1990, Verry turned over little more than £10 million a year.

Th is year turnover should pass £100 million as Verry has since expanded out of its traditional refurbishment market into commercial and education work and housing and to an office in St Albans to cover the Thames Valley.

That relocation led to Mr Gibson deciding that, instead of spending £50,000 a year on a marketing director for that region, he would buy St Albans Football Club and use that as a marketing tool.

In the four years since buying the club, Verry has sunk £200,000 into football. Mr Gibson has no regrets, with the club promoted to the Conference last season. With a spot in the football league a target, he is planning a £3 million stadium ? with spare land to be used to build more £60,000 homes from WeberHaus.