How a Corporate Social Responsibility opportunity changed ISO Spaces

Managing Director, Ben Treleaven shares his story on the ISO Spaces journey so far.

20 years ago, Corporate Social Responsibility (or CSR), was something many an MD tried to incorporate into their business because they thought they should – it was the new big thing that everyone was talking about. 

In the same way that agile working will undoubtedly be the norm in 20 years’ time, over the last decade, CSR has become integral to the creation of a brand, entrenched in the culture of a business, and an intrinsic part of strategic planning.  

I’m definitely not a CSR expert, but I wanted to share ISO Spaces’ story because I think it’s a great example of how a CSR opportunity can change the direction of a business for the better. It might be inconvenient at the time, detract from focus and go against the business plan, but sometimes you can’t ignore what’s going on around you.

ISO Spaces started out converting shipping containers to create commercial spaces; bars, pop up restaurants, retail units. In 2016, out of the blue we were approached by Ealing Council and asked if we could build 35 homes from containers, to create a temporary housing complex. 

Housing wasn’t what we did and we had never planned to do it, but the cause was a great one and the principle of the build was the same, so we just said yes and decided to sort out the ‘how’ later.

Using a kit of moveable and reusable parts we constructed 35 apartments on a brownfield site in Ealing that had previously attracted fly tipping and anti-social activity. The homes were fully manufactured, fitted and finished within 14 weeks.

As a result of the build, a total of 72 local people were housed in comfortable, safe conditions. The alternative would have been B&Bs, run down accommodation in often unsafe areas, or the streets. 

There was something in this; vacant land being brought back into use, providing temporary refuge for people who desperately needed it. Our moveable structures were designed in such a way that once the tenure was up or the land was needed for permanent use, they could simply be picked up and moved to another site to do good elsewhere.

Working with Ealing Council opened our eyes to the devastating situation that so many families find themselves in. In Scotland, from May 2021 if you lose your home and are housed in temporary accommodation (like unsupported hostels and B&Bs), legally you must only be there for seven days before the council decides if you qualify for long-term housing. In England, this decision can take up to 12 weeks.

To me, modular housing is a clear solution to this problem; clean, safe emergency accommodation that can be installed quickly on ground that is only available temporarily. This realisation was something that couldn’t be ignored, so despite the fact it wasn’t the way we thought our business would grow, we decided to prioritise these types of contracts.

Since the installation of our first housing development in Ealing, we have gone on to provide a further two developments for Ealing Council; the three collectively provide a safe space to live for over 500 people. 

In March 2020, we installed temporary accommodation in a car park for Cardiff Council. This development is frequently used by domestic abuse victims seeking refuge. 

In 2021, we will complete our Pembrokeshire development which will see eight pre-constructed units installed on the site of a former school. 

We are actively seeking opportunities with other councils and housing bodies across the UK. Why? Because the need is so great, the product works, the results make such a difference, and the emotional reward is so wonderful. 

Modular housing is so transportable that land identified as a potential site for council housing development can be used in the interim period between it being identified and it being built on – and simply moved to another site when the council is ready to start building on the land. 

This type of CSR isn’t donating to a charity or making sure we choose the most environmentally friendly way to transport pieces of steel to our manufacturing units; this is actively changing the focus of our business to benefit members of the public, and it feels good. 

Of course, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we have made any moves that would be detrimental to our annual turnover – luckily this is a change of focus that is sustainable for our business. Still, it’s a deviation from who we thought we were. 

So, have you previously dismissed an idea because it isn’t what your business plan says you’ll do? Or who your website says you are? Be malleable, take risks and jump at the chance of making a real difference to another person’s life. You get a great buzz from it, believe me”.  

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