Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Gusto Group CEO on his sustainable approach to building houses, communities and businesses
Some of the most modern and eco-friendly homes in the UK are built by the housing arm of Nottinghamshire-based Gusto Group, but that’s only the beginning of the story for social entrepreneur Steff Wright. He talks to Dan Robinson about what sustainability means to him – and how he’s beginning to learn it starts at our front door.
Steff Wright is sat at his desk inside the home he built – perhaps not with his own hands, but certainly at his direction.
He is the founder, CEO and visionary of Gusto Group, a collection of businesses that all have sustainability at their heart.
One of these is Gusto Homes, an eco-friendly housebuilder that not only adopts low-carbon technologies, but is increasingly seeking to create sustainable communities.
This is most evident at its flagship site in Collingham, near Newark – where its head office is also located – in which residents in the 150 ultra-efficient homes have access to a co-working space, café and plastic-free shop.
Sales have skyrocketed since lockdown as people prioritise cheaper, cleaner living while seeking to replace long-distance commutes with closely-tied home and work life.
“Sustainability, for me, has many different meanings,” says Steff, who lives in another of his company’s sites, the luxury eco-lifestyle Woodlands Edge development north of Lincoln.
“Environmental sustainability means that something can continue in balance with nature, and without having a negative impact upon the environment.
“But business and community sustainability are equally important to me and absolutely essential across everything we do.
“If we can design our own communities so they have everything to grow from within, and don’t have to rely on large corporates, then that’s a more sustainable model.
“So it’s not just about the energy efficiency of a house but the whole sustainability of the community.
“That’s something I’ve focused on over the past few years as our thinking has evolved.”
How sustainability became embedded in Steff Wright's businesses
Sustainability has always been at the very top of the agenda for Steff throughout his entrepreneurial journey – his group has several businesses in various sectors, employing 150 people in total – as he recognised its potential for carving out a niche from the beginning.
After funding his building diploma course at Basford Hall College by working as a mobile DJ at the age of 17, he set up his own one-man-band construction company in 1985.
Starting off as a small works contractor that renovated properties like old barns, Gusto Construction later moved into residential house building.
“My background is learning business through doing business, rather than working for other companies,” says the 58-year-old.
It was in the 1990s when he first truly heard the term “sustainability” as the Government began exploring how businesses should react to the potential impact of climate change.
Deciding he wanted to build the most innovative housing development on the market, he incorporated new ideas into the initial 26-home Millennium Green estate in Collingham, opening in 2000.
These included rainwater harvesting, solar thermal heaters, heat recovery systems and triple insulation.
“That was our first endeavour of building away from the normal building regulations and standards,” explains Steff, who bought his first fully electric car around the same time.
“Our commercial view was if we built better quality houses, there would be a market for people who wanted to buy them.
“The sentiment was pretty negative towards new homes because there was a perception of them being poor quality, but we had people relocating from other parts of the country as they were drawn to the standard of property we were building.”
As one of the only commercial sustainable housing developers – other projects with a similar specification were Government-funded and often one-off exemplars – Steff spoke at a number of industry conferences about his work.
He was able to discuss in-depth the costs and risks involved with improving the energy efficiency of new-builds, as well as the return on investment.
“Millennium Green was a success,” says Steff. “We could have made a lot more money through building standard houses on that site but we took a lot of customer feedback on board, which has allowed us to continue innovating over the past 20 years.”
Sustainability is at the core of Gusto Homes
No site is the same and different technologies have been applied according to their specific needs.
Developments in conservation areas, such as a 30-home estate in Southwell, carry limitations so the homes may be nearer typical standards while still punching above their weight in terms of energy performance.
The Collingham site, which includes 60 retirement properties, is one of the largest-scale developments to use ground-source heat pumps.
The technology takes low-grade heat from 100m depths underground and multiplies it through the pump so it hits higher temperatures once it reaches the house.
Steff explains: “The efficiency of this system is about four-times higher in terms of the energy used to heat the home than that used by the heat pumps.
“This basically means the bills will be four-times lower than usual, and it doesn’t make much difference between summer and winter as the ground temperature only drops by a couple of degrees.”
The homes in both Collingham and the Woodlands Edge site, in North Carlton, are designed in-house by Gusto Group architecture practice subsidiary Studio-G Associates LLP and built to Passivhaus standard, which represents high energy efficiency.
Prices start at £340,000 for two-beds in both developments but savings are made in the longer term due to the energy reduction measures.
As well as being equipped with triple glazing, solar panels and an infrared heating system, heat is recovered from shower waste at Woodlands Edge – cutting hot water demand by 50%.
“Electricity costs were practically zero for the people who moved into the 30 homes that comprised the first phase of this development five years ago,” says Steff, a former chairman of Lincoln City FC.
“Many of them would actually earn money from the feed-in tariffs by supplying the grid from their own power resources, while there’s also a nice regular temperature and cleaner air quality in the house.
“It’s a proper community – not just in the energy generation of the houses, but in the way it’s modelled – and there’s green spaces that are better for people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Steff Wright on why businesses need to embrace sustainability
To some people, the idea of sustainability and pro-environmentalism conjures images of Extinction Rebellion protestors climbing on top of a London Underground train or crowds holding anti-meat placards.
Steff admits businesspeople may have negative perceptions of campaigners in general due to their thirst for disruption but he says it’s time they woke up to the changes already underway.
“What people need to understand is that this is where the market is heading,” he says. “It could be as simple as pivot or die as a business. If you’re going to keep doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll soon become outdated.
“But businesses also really need to see this as an opportunity. If you’re an SME, there’s never been a better time to really listen to where the market is going and create a new locally-based ecosystem that will thrive and prosper.
“Large plcs will struggle to adapt as easily as the smaller companies, so SMEs have a massive opportunity to be at the leading edge by creating the products and services for this new era of sustainability.”
Setting sail on a different business path with Rototek
Being at the pulse of the latest technologies led Steff Wright to owning one of the world’s largest sailing dinghy manufacturers.
While Gusto Homes and Gusto Construction employ large numbers of contractors when building at an average of one house per week, Rototek is the largest permanent employer with about 120 staff.
Steff took over the Newark-based rotational moulding company in July 2011 after previously using it as a supplier while installing rainwater harvesting technology at the Millennium Green development in Collingham.
He says: “We were bringing in rainwater harvesting systems from Germany because there was no one in the UK really selling the tanks, so I set up a company to manufacture them, which was eventually sold.
“We were a customer of Rototek, which was expanding at the time and had 40 talented engineers.
“It went bust so rather than watching the company close, I bought it out of administration and was able to save those jobs.
“That allowed us to continue making the rainwater tanks, but also sailing dinghies and lots of other products to different sectors. It’s quite an innovative rotational moulding company.”
Rototek, whose history stretches back to 1993, now has a £10m turnover, with factories in Newark and Worksop.
Outside the dinghy market, it also makes components for traffic signs, oil storage tanks and furniture used in both prisons and hospitals.
While Steff admits its environmental credentials aren’t as strong as in the housebuilding arm of Gusto due to its existence in an energy-intensive sector, it uses the recyclable plastic polyethylene rather than hydrocarbons, along with cleaner materials in making glass fibre and steel.
“In that sense, we use a lot less energy than alternative forms of manufacturing,” he adds.
Collab platform will help bring sustainable communities together online
Having developed sustainable communities in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire villages, Steff Wright is now trying to do something similar in the virtual world.
Wearing another of his entrepreneurial hats, he has built a digital conferencing platform to allow communities to meet up online.
He has already hosted events including a Newark Business Club meeting on the Collab platform, which was developed by people who had worked on his Global Grad venture – which enables people to study online and volunteer while travelling the world.
“Because we were involved with online learning, video conferencing wasn’t anything new to us, so we decided to focus on developing that aspect of our business,” he says.
“We’ve created our own digital events ‘venue’ in which there are different ‘rooms’ for people to enter and speak to others who are in those rooms.
“It’s a game-changing platform for people to come online to trade each other. It’s similar to Teams or Zoom, but the environment has a completely different feel to it.
“We’re moving towards virtual reality, so people are going to be able to work from wherever they like and still be able to meet up with friends and colleagues.
“We’ve built a completely different ecosystem that could rethink the way we operate in the digital world.”
While its potential for conferencing is clear, Steff says it’s also opened up opportunities for bringing communities closer together during lockdown, as well as helping small businesses to promote themselves locally.
Steff explains: “People were struggling to communicate with each other so we pivoted that technology to focus on starting conversations within very small communities.
“Our first one was in Collingham and we’re looking to roll out more community Collabs, which will be free to use.
“It’s effectively a digital version of everything else we’re doing. We’re moving that same community-driven model on to a digital platform so people can connect.”
This article featured in the November issue of Business Network magazine, which is a special sustainability edition. To read an online version of the magazine, click here.
To find out more about the Sustainable East Midlands campaign, visit www.emc-dnl.co.uk/sustainability.