Barratt is Britain's best known housebuilder – but not always for the right reasons. Here its new chief executive tells us how he intends to preserve the firm's legacy, and silence some of its critics.
Trailing construction and sales staff in his wake, David Pretty strides around Capital West, an apartment block in Brentford, west London, like an eager royal on a walkabout. One pause to congratulate the site manager for his NHBC Pride in the Job award, another to scrutinise Assael Architecture's glass and terracotta cladding ("I get fussy about the details"). And, like an old-school royal, Pretty remains the model of formal politeness, even when the sight of an integrated oven in the kitchen reminds him of the downside of being the chief executive of the country's best known housebuilder. "When we first started putting integrated appliances into kitchens we got criticised by a television programme, even though we were doing it because the customers wanted it," he says.

Ah yes, criticism. Architectural experts and documentary film-makers have put Barratt in the frame for all that is wrong with modern housebuilding. Not that this bothers Pretty. After more than 20 years with the company – interrupted by a brief sojourn to set up London developer St George – he has become inured to "Barratt bashing". On the other hand, his first nine months at the wheel of the juggernaut have been marked by the kind of changes that, as he puts it himself, "defy some of the perceptions of volume housebuilders".

Pretty was group managing director and also headed the firm's Southern region before taking up the group chief executive role. The drivers for the Southern business were good design, large-scale urban regeneration and social housing partnership. Those priorities are being spread across Barratt's 32 UK divisions. Pretty's office shows off the company's best side: its walls are papered by awards and glossy pictures of schemes, and its meeting table is adorned with an incongruous statue of a golden newt – another award, given for environmental improvements at the company's Pierhead Lock scheme in London Docklands.

Exactly 20 years after the company was put through its most famous trial by television, the World in Action documentary that condemned its use of timber frame, Barratt is preparing to build homes using off-site manufacturing technology once again. This time, it is backing steel modular construction, in a joint venture with manufacturer Terrapin, called Advance Housing. The venture has invested in a 90,000 ft2 factory in Daventry, and it will be testing its product – two- and three-bedroom houses – on site within the next six months. The factory should be producing 1000 units within three years, mostly for the affordable market.

I was put straight into a job as a salesman. That’s the kind of thing we’re doing with our graduates. We’re not giving them a Cook’s tour

Work on the Advance Housing initiative was under way when Pretty moved up to the top job at Barratt in October, following the death of his predecessor Frank Eaton in a car accident. Pretty may have taken on the job after losing a colleague and close friend, but the business did not pause to grieve. "The word pause is not in our vocabulary," he says. It shows. In the first 10 months of its financial year, the company won planning consents for 18,200 homes across about 300 sites, exceeding last year's total of 16,000 consents. And the company agreed more than 80 social housing partnerships that will deliver 2000 homes for rent and shared ownership.

Pretty has also proved he can deliver the goods for shareholders and the City. His first set of financial results, the interims released last December, delivered a record pre-tax profit of £105.3m on about 6000 completions, and analysts expect good things from the soon-to-be released full-year figures.

Personal effects

Who is in your family? My wife Sue, who’s a freelance interior designer for Barratt and has worked for the company for longer than I have, two daughters and two granddaughters.

Where do you live? In a townhouse in Richmond, Surrey. It is not a Barratt house, but I do own two Barratt apartments – which I now rent, but have lived in. One is an office conversion in Wapping, east London, and the other is nearby in Limehouse.

What are your hobbies? I don’t have as much time for those as I used to. I’d say my family and friends – and I try to keep active in the gym.

What are you reading? I’ve just finished The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, and a biography of the Duke of Wellington. Now I’m starting Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.