Sustainable Homes For All - Jerker Lessing - BoKlok Housing



Published on: October 27, 2019

This week’s interview comes from Sweden, I sat down with Jerker Lessing, the Director of Research and Development for BoKlok Housing. BoKlok is the collaboration between Skanska and Ikea, building beautiful pre-fabricated homes in Sweden, the Nordics and now the UK too.

In this interview with Jerker from BoKlok Housing, we’ll be answering some big questions like:

  • How can pre-fabricated housing meet the urgent requirement to build more, high-quality homes in cities around the world?
  • What are some of the benefits of manufacturing houses in this way?
  • And what are some of the key areas that BoKlok will be focussing on as they scale their operations overseas.

Links to BoKlok Housing:

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If you liked this podcast with Jerker Lessing from BoKlok Housing, make sure you like and subscribe and follow my daily journey on Instagram (@thefuturedistributed).

And finally, have you ever heard the phrase ‘the Future is Here, it’s just not evenly Distributed Yet’ - well let’s do something about that.

Full Transcript

Note: this transcript was generated mostly by AI, so expect minor inaccuracies.

I’m here in Malmo in Sweden, and I’m joined by Jerker Lessing. Jerker is the head off Research and Development BoKlok Housing. Thanks for joining me here today.

Thanks a lot. Thank you for coming.

How are you?

Yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine. Have a bit of a little cold, but that’s how it is in September, I guess.

Great, as I say thanks for your time and we’ll start by just introducing yourself, tell us how you got into construction and how you ended up working for BoKlok.

So I’ve been working in construction for 20 years and I’ve had sort of two tracks. First, I started off as a structural engineer. Work with that for a couple of years. And then I moved over to working more on a holistic level with supply chain management, logistics and change management. And so then, after that, I got into research about industrialized construction. And to me, that was actually a way to combine these two, the holistic picture sort of and the more detailed technical level, because to me, industrialization requires both.

So I worked with the research and also split my time as a consultant and adviser for companies wanting to develop further into industrialization. And that’s led me to BoKlok some five years ago, I did a case study on BoKlok, and I found the company very, very interesting. So interesting that I actually ended up working here as head of Research and Development.

BoKlok Housing - Ikea & Skanska Partnership

Great. Yeah, it definitely seems like there’s a lot of interesting work going on here in this partnership between Skanska and Ikea, two big Swedish names, do you want to briefly describe the work that you’re doing here at BoKlok?

Absolutely so it started actually almost 25 years ago already with a vision from the founder of Ikea and the Chairman of Skanska.

They met at the housing fair, and at least we know that the founder of Ikea, Ingvar Kamprad, he was upset because what he saw that the housing fair was only exclusive apartments and buildings. And he said, “Where are the houses and apartments for the many people?” And there was not a really good answer to that. So he then he reached out to the chairman of Skanska, said, I think we should do something about this and he said, Yes, I agree. And that’s what’s sort of the start off the idea off BoKlok - housing for the many people at at low prices. So that was to start. And then when it was more sort of more concrete, there was a team set up - three women, actually, and to dig deep into the needs and the priorities and the financial limitations and all that, to look for the customer segment and the actual needs around this.

So they defined that they don’t really deep into that after that, that information and knowledge was used as input to the first product development to sort of set up the first portfolio off products. And then after that, when they knew what to do, they set up the production system to achieve it.

And I think this three step model is part of the secret sauce behind BoKlok, or at least the very three very important steps, and not least in that order: to start with the customer go on to the product and then to the production has been super successful.

I’ve seen many other examples where they actually take all almost the opposite order, create like an advanced production system and then tried to squeeze in some products into that and then try to look for customers. And it doesn’t always succeed. So that was It was sort of the opposite, and it’s kind of in the culture of BoKlok, doing things kind of differently from the traditional industry, and it’s proven very successful.

So we’ve been around for 23/24 years. We have built until now 12,000 homes in Sweden, Norway, Finland. We have since six months or so decided to establish ourselves also in the UK, as you know, which is super promising. It’s super exciting. And so our plans are, of course, to expand our concept since we, we feel that there’s a big need for it.

Absolutely. Yeah, there’s a big excitement and a need for housing in the UK as there is in lots of other cities, regions across Europe and the world.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s a global movement for sure.

Just to speak a bit more about the houses that you develop. How long does it take to manufacturer a typical [BoKlok] house?

Well, typical. First of all, we don’t make single standalone single houses, so we always build housing area off some scale. So typical BoKlok Project would be maybe 35-40 apartments in a small housing area. That project would be produced in our factory in 3 to 4 weeks.

And then we could say 75-80% or something like that of the construction work above ground, It’s done in the factory, so that takes 3 to 4 weeks.

Then we ship the modules on trucks to the site and on the site, we assemble these modules in 3 to 4 days. Then we have our four story building up and sealed with the roof and so on, and then follows a couple of more months to complete everything to connect them, complete the facade and the roof and the garden and parking lots and stuff like that.

But all in all, it’s a very, very fast process way Say that we average half of the time compared to traditional construction.

Great. So from the foundation’s being in place, it takes you less than a week to Construct all these individual parts.

Exactly, not all about the modules, just the main body. And then So that’s a That’s a week. 3 to 4 days, say five if it’s windy week, then follows the assembly off balconies, some columns for the walkways and so on, and then the facade and and so on. But the volume of the building is up in four days. Sometimes we joke if the neighbours have gone for a skiing trip for a week and then they come home and there’s a four story building next to them and they like what? What happened? So that’s kind of fun and, of course, extremely efficient.

Benefts of a BoKlok House

Interesting, and in case it isn’t obvious, what are some of the benefits in constructing houses in this way?

Well, the benefits are obviously it’s a more efficient way so that we keep the costs low. And since we do this on a very repetitive basis, the quality can be kept on a very high level. It’s a very, very stable, very, very predictable process. The waste from the process, both in time, we try to eliminate the waste full time sort of non value-adding time. We try to bring that out of the process off course. That’s part of their being having an industrialized mindset.

But also, uh, more physical wastes. We tried to minimize waste in terms of material and so off course, and also try to minimise unnecessary movement in terms, off transportation and so on. So that’s some of some of the benefits, and it comes back to both the cost perspective. Of course, we’ll keep the cost low, but it also come it comes back to safety because it’s a very predictable production process. Then we can also eliminate hazards and risks and so on installed the right equipment for our workers to take care of them at the same time making the process efficient.

So that’s one very important aspect, but also, of course, sustainability. Since it’s predictable, we can also optimize from a sustainability perspective. So we see many, many, many advantages. So this, of course.

Great. Yeah. You mentioned there about the logistics on the fact that you can plan much more accurately which lorries you need, how you gonna transport these modules and when? I know you have a lot of research on integrated logistics?

Yeah, you could say that because because everything we do is is very integrated, with all parts are super integrated. And I think maybe we should take one step back and I could explain, because what we do we have a range of products or a product portfolio. We call it a product platform. So we use that and that is based on our preferred solutions.

We have been able to optimize them and so on. And from that set off components and subsystems, we configure our housing areas. The buildings and the grounds and so on, so and that makes it very repetitive. But off course, the buildings are unique in that way that we can vary in height and length and facade material and so on. But the content of it is very the same. And because of that, we can we can and be very, very efficient.

Great. And do you reuse aspects of a process over different buildings?

Yeah, yeah, of course. So we actually keep keep the almost the same process for all projects. So it’s very, very similar to other manufacturing industries, actually, So we say that we have stopped comparing ourselves to the traditional construction industry. We’re kind of beyond that. So what we now do is that we try to seek inspiration and knowledge and compare ourselves more to the manufacturing industries and learn from them because we see that we have many similarities, even though, of course, we build buildings that were part of the built environment and so on, of course we are very much aware of that. But we seek our inspiration from from many sources.

BoKlok Housing as a manufacturing process

Do you think that’s influenced by the Ikea side of the partnership? They must have a lot of ideas and experience in scaling up these manufacturing processes?

Absolutely, absolutely That’s part of their legacy for sure.

And perhaps you can walk us through that partnership in a bit more detail. I’m really curious as to if you have a new project or a new product that you want to bring it out onto the platform?

Yeah, so So we could say that the partnership is on a strategic level. So it’s not that that Skanska people and I care people get together and make a BoKlok you project. So what was done was that Ikea and Skanska decided to to establish something new called BoKlok, and that was set up in an entity of its own. So it’s a company of its own, You could say. It’s operated under the sort of umbrella of Skanska because it’s closer to what Skanska does, of course. So the collaboration is strategic.

In that sense, we have a board three members from Ikea three members from Skanska. They are sort of setting the scene for what what we do. Of course, they defined our customer offering. But as I said, we have our own organization, so we we control the whole value chain of BoKlok. We have our own product development, we have our own project teams, site managers, sales personnel, business developers, meaning land acquisition and so on and so on. So we have the whole organization for doing what we do. but it’s of course, reinforced with knowledge and so on from Ikea and also from Skanska, of course.

So that’s sort of the set up in our daily operations we of course have many, many, many interactions with Skanska because it’s close to those kind of operations. We also have a lot of interaction with Ikea So we have all our sales events we have at Ikea stores. We use Ikea interior solutions in our homes like the kitchen cabinets and storage solutions and stuff like that, naturally.

Our latest addition, which we’re really proud of, is that we have developed solar PV solutions for all our multi family buildings in Sweden to start with.

We have developed together with Ikea because Ikea have a really, really big push for for solar PV. And we have jointly developed solutions specifically for a BoKlok. So that’s an interaction like the latest from from Sort of BoKlok, Ikea, Skanska.

That’s really interesting - It’s great understanding more about how it all works in a more practical level. I want to switch the conversation a little bit on move towards what you talking about earlier about defining what the customer really wants and what they need. Do you think the demand that you’ve seen in Sweden and it’s very popular, the style of housing from what I understand? How are you seeing the differences between that demand in Sweden compared to some of the other markets that you’re now targeting?

So what we look at when we go to a new market is to see what are the needs on the housing market. Where are the customer segments that we could target and so on? And what we see is that it’s very, very similar between different countries like Sweden and Norway, Finland and also the UK, with some tweaks, of course.

So that’s what we start with looking at. We’re actually not that focused on our products because we feel that we know what we do, we have our set up, and one part of that is our product portfolio. But we’re also very much aware that we can’t bring Swedish houses end-product, so to say, to the UK or to Finland or to Norway or whatever country.

But what we do is that we have our set up. We have our product-oriented mind set. We have our production system and based on that, we actually configure new products for a new markets. Like in the UK We have products designed for the UK market, but it’s based on the same logic, same principles like we do here, so it’s not that we’re bringing Swedish houses to the UK, but the content of it, it’s of course, it’s still walls and windows and roofs and ceilings and stuff like that. But it’s set put together in a in a way, that that fits those needs the best way.

Okay, do you plan to expand where you have your physical factories as well, or is that I still always gonna be built in Sweden?

So today we have one factory that we own and control completely, by ourselves. Then we have set of the partner factories as well supplier factories. They’re similar to our own, but they are separate companies. We have formed partnerships with them, so they supply us with mainly volumetric elements but also some of the complimenting material, so that set up, we think it’s a it’s a good way off, balancing also the risk.

So we have our one factory and that’s really good because it covers one part of our volume, and we also know very much about how to produce this and we increase our knowledge and so on. Based on that, we could ask suppliers to do the same thing we do and if they can’t really do it, But we believe in them, we can support them because we have a lot of knowledge about this. So that’s the way we want to keep doing.

BoKlok’s core R&D focuses right now

Great - it sounds really interesting! So you mentioned a lot about the expansion of the UK on also solar PV in your role as looking after the research and development, what your core focuses for innovation, what your team working on at the moment?

We are focusing quite a lot on our product platform development than our strategy around that. Actually partly driven also by our expansion, so we see that in order to take the most advantage off having our product oriented set up or mindset, and we need to structure it a little differently to make it efficient so we can actually use as many solutions and good ideas as possible on across markets. Perspective start to say so. That way we look into, and also of course what kind of digital systems we need for doing this in the most reliable and efficient way.

So product development, product platform development, this one really strong, focus. Digitalization is always a strong focus, of course, but I’d say that very, very high priority is sustainability in all different aspects, the green aspects of course, but also the social and economic.

So we use the UN 17 goals of sustainability as our guiding stars, and we tried to address them in the best way as possible. Of course we Then we refine it to to see Okay, what? What can we do within these different areas.

Then another focus is of course, also building site efficiency or operational efficiency to make it even even more efficient. As I said, we are much faster than traditional construction. But if we look at other manufacturing industries, we have still a lot to learn, of course. So if we can see our building sites as the final assembly stage and not as a building site, then I think we can sort of have our mindset kind of different.

So that’s super interesting, and there’s a lot of the gains to make, and the last thing is factory development as well. We’re actually we’re in the middle of a big program off increasing our capacity in our own factory, which is very, very exciting. So that’s a little some flavors of what we do.

It’s a really broad range of expertise you must have to manage!

Yes, that’s true. But also both expertise in different areas, but not least to make these different aspects work together. Like how can digitalization support sustainability? And how can a product platform be fueled by, as I said digitalization but also be structured in order to achieve high level of sustainability? So it’s all intertwined, actually.

Bit off topic but intrigued to ask, are you doing any research into – when I was in the reception earlier, there was the WELL building poster, the Healthy building, so not just sustainable, but actually healthy to live in. Are you doing any research in those directions?

Absolutely, it’s a very high focus for us, if I mean, if we put it some general label of social sustainability, that’s a very, very high focus for us. So we want our housing areas are communities or neighborhoods or whatever you wanna call it to be a good place to live in.

We want our neighbors to meet, we want them to thrive and to help each other, and we want to reduce loneliness and so on. So that’s a big thing for us to look into that. So well-being decreasing loneliness, creating strong neighborhoods and strong a living spaces. We want to see that if you move into a BoKlok Neighborhood, BoKlok Housing area, you don’t only live in your apartment, you actually live in the neighborhood. And that needs to It needs to be designed and put together in a nice way. So we’re looking into different aspect off having more shared spaces.

Really interesting, you’ve got a very interesting job!

Yeah, absolutely. I enjoy it a lot!

Jerker’s role at Stanford University

I noticed a lot that you worked alongside academia for a lot of your career. And you’re now Adjunct Professor at Stanford University.

That’s correct. Yeah. Yeah. I’ve had a long collaboration with Stanford since 2013 and since two years, I’m adjunct professor, so a little more permanent role, which is, of course, super interesting. Nice to have that collaboration.

How important is that to you? And does that help your work at BoKlok, having that backwards and forwards between Stanford?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it helps both me as a person but also helps BoKlok and it actually helps the Stanford Also a little. It gives us a lot of inspiration. It gives us a way off having our ear to the ground to see trends and see innovation coming, not least since Stanford is located in the middle of Silicon Valley. So we have a lot of the we see a lot from their coming and that we can take advantage of. So we constantly have a supply of students from Stanford coming over here to do internships with us. We have just recently had a student came here, did very interesting work on how to work with water in different aspects to decrease our use of water.

And so last summer we had a student working on digital software tools for how to support our product platform, as I mentioned before and so on. So that’s a very concrete way that we take advantage of that. But me myself, my role is to mainly to teach a course on industrialized construction. So I do that every year. I bring over knowledge from from BoKlok, of course, but also from Sweden. Sweden is very mature in terms of industrialized construction much more than the US at least. So I bring over that knowledge, spread it to the students, and then they can bring that to their home countries. Not all are from the U. S, of course, from global scene.

So that’s super interesting. And it also brings us a way to interact with with interesting companies. So we have a collaboration now with super interesting company around there. Which was fueled by our presence at Stanford. So some different example of what we what we can gain and what they can gain.

Sound like a really fruitful partnership! Okay, so we’re slowly running out of time, but I do have one question left, I’d like to talk about your focus is initially is on housing, but is there any plans to expand that into different building types or perhaps use these industrialized methods for more wider infrastructure, water systems, railway?

It’s a really good question. I think BoKlok will not be building the railway stations or hospitals. Or so I think BoKlok should focus on housing because that’s what we do, But we would be happy to see other other companies or partnerships or whatever that take on our approach to buildings, treating them as products and producing them in a more industrialized way. We would be happy to see that happen. And we would also be happy of course, too, share our insights in our knowledge in that a natural receiver of that is, of course, our mother company Skanska, that we have a lot of interaction with them. We see that that we can inspire parts of Skanska to adopt some of our ideas, of course, but also other companies as well in different parts of the world and not least through my role at Stanford. That’s a way, of course, the spreading some of our knowledge. And if we can see a company being established in another country anywhere in the world, we would be very happy to see it happen. But as I said, BoKlok will stick to housing.

The quick-fire round

Very exciting feature ahead, I’m sure! Before we wrap up a few last quickfire questions. So it’s three or four questions. Just the first thing that comes into your head. 30 seconds on each or so. Ready?

Yeah, I’m ready.

Okay. So if you could change one thing about the Swedish house building sector overnight, what would that be then?

I would try to solve the paradox of we have a great need for housing, but we have a fairly low volumes being built. Then I would change that.

That leads me onto an unplanned question. How do you think about scale has scaling up your operation. So is it a linear scaling?

That’s the thing. That’s the thing. I think with the industrialization and product orientation, it’s actually scaleable in a completely different way than traditional, because that’s very linear or actually sort of declining. Maybe in some way, I think again, we have a lot of similarities with other manufacturing industries. And what we have seen they do is to scale not only in their home country or home region, but actually on a on a global perspective.

Do you think that in day-to-day process design decisions, this might work for 1000 homes a year. But will it work for 100,000 times a year?

Maybe we don’t think those thoughts every day, but we have it in in our mind set that we have the structure and set up of our operations that it could be scaled differently then what we’re used to in construction, that’s for sure. And as I said before working with product platforms, that’s one way off off, sort of using the knowledge, put it in a package that could be used in a more efficient than scaleable way. There are production principles. I mean, that’s almost exactly as other any other manufacturing industry scaleable and so on, especially when we fuel it with digitalization. We really, really use it digitalization to integrate the product and the production. And in our terms, production is both the factory on the site and we could even extend our product approach throughout the life cycle of the product. Then we see something that we’re not used to see in construction, which is super exciting.

Are you a reader and if so, what book have you been reading recently that you think everyone should read?

Well, uh, if I rephrase the question a book that I didn’t read recently, but I read it quite some time ago, but it was a game changer for me was the book called The Machine That Changed the World.

It’s about how the automotive industry transformed into working much, much more efficiently and the birth of lean production was an extremely eye opening book for me. So I think that’s a good book to read for construction people to reconsider what we do.

But actually I think in general we read too little. So I think start reading stuff that people smart people, right? That’s a really good start to get inspired and get new perspective.

So, yeah, from completely different perspectives, not construction related necessarily…

Exactly, exactly, innovation and how to how to change things and so on.

Okay, so what do you goals for your team at BoKlok and perhaps your career the next 3 to 5 years?

So I want to contribute to BoKlok being recognized globally for the combination of building sustainable and beautiful and customer appreciated and, of course, low priced housing concepts. To spread that word to show that it’s possible and that we pay attention to all these different aspects to make it a really really good product, that’s the mission. And, of course, the recipe how to do it is to use the product approach and industrialized production methods. That’s my mission: to keep spreading, spreading that and inspiring others as well as inspiring ourselves with that.

Sounds like very good goals- I wish you all the best for that. Before we go, one last question. As you know, I’m traveling around different areas and trying to find the most innovative people working in the architectural engineering construction landscape. You must have a very big global network. Who would you say it’s One person inspires you? Who’s the person that I should go meet?

There are many, many inspiring people, of course. I think if you happen to be in California, especially in the north part of California, and more specifically, if you happen to be at Stanford University, then I think you should spend an hour talking to Professor Martin Fischer. He’s a pioneer in bringing together efficient construction processes and using digitalization to achieve it. That would be a very inspiring conversation, I’m sure.

Great. Thank you so much. Thanks for your time today and you’re really great answers on best of luck in achieving all of your goals with BoKlok.

Thanks a lot. Thanks for having us!

Thanks again to Jerker for his time and the truly groundbreaking work is undertaking with the BoKlok team. The case for prefabricated housing is so strong and from visiting some of the housing developments in Malmo after our conversation, I can say that this is the future of Housing.

It’s not just the affordability of these homes that make them stand out, they’re also high quality and actually really livable. I would definitely love to live in one. I for one will be following BoKlok journey as they look to scale with their operations overseas and continue to push the boundaries in this increasingly competitive market.

That’s all for this week. Make sure you had over to FutureDistributed.Org for all the latest content. Remember to tell your friends and colleagues that this show is available to listen to you for free in any app that supports podcasts. If you like what you heard today, make sure you, like, subscribe and follow my daily journey on instagram (@thefuturedistributed).

Finally, have you ever heard the phrase "the future is here just not evenly distributed yet? Well, let’s do something about that"

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