Fighting talk is on the agenda as John Weir of Wilcon Homes prepares to take up one of the hottest seats in housebuilding: president of the House Builders Federation. Martin Spring finds out how he plans to change the system from within…
With his flowing black locks, open-necked shirt and evangelical soundbites about future living patterns, the last thing John Weir resembles is a housebuilder. A creative director in advertising, perhaps. Or an updated, secular Wesleyan preacher. Or a 1970s vintage architect. In fact, 50-year-old John Weir is the last of these by training – which makes his career and current position that much more amazing.

The truth is that Weir is a bastion of that industry most reviled by architects – housebuilding. And not a yuppie loft-converter in the Tom Bloxham mould, but the group design and marketing director of a volume housebuilder, Northampton-based Wilcon Homes. More than that, he will move into the epicentre of the mainstream industry in April next year, when he becomes president of the House Builders Federation.

In keeping with his nonconformist appearance, Weir shows positive glee at the prospect of tackling the received image of the HBF as an eco-vandal on greenfield development and energy efficiency, a philistine on housing design and a reactionary on building standards.

"The housebuilding industry has a huge image problem," he says. "At present it is a political football that is kicked here and there. But I want to see homes on the agenda for all the right reasons. The HBF has to be in positive dialogue with government, and at the same time it has to be populist." Not since the HBF was headed by Wimpey chairman Cliff Chetwood in the 1980s has a president been so keen to stick his head above the parapet and sound off. It is an approach that is bound to wind up the industry's backwoodsmen.

So, too, is fighting talk such as: "The housebuilding industry is about to explode. It is becoming more and more polarised between those that use knowledge to become vigorous and agile [his favourite phrase] and those that are big, cumbersome and slow." There are no prizes for guessing which camp Wilcon belongs to, in Weir's estimation. With an annual production of 4500 homes, it has steered clear of the mergers that have swept other volume housebuilders. "What do mergers give you?" asks Weir. "More of the same thing? A more cumbersome organisation? We plan to use the knowledge economy to become best in the industry, and then grow after that. To do that we have to invest." Wilcon's "vigorous and agile" approach is spearheaded by Allan Leighton, the former Asda boss, who took over in January as non-executive chairman of Wilcon's parent, Wilson Connolly Holdings. Leighton has used the job, which had been in the Wilson family for three generations, to introduce a fresh approach to building houses. "What Allan has brought to us is the desire to be the best, and the confidence to think differently so that we can achieve that," says Weir.

At the forefront of Wilcon's bid to do this is the 411-home St James Village in central Northampton, which started on site in January. Designed by PRP Architects and driven by Weir, the scheme bursts with innovations, making it one of the fullest embodiments to date of the drive towards high-density, sustainable, brownfield housing.

For a start, all houses are terraced, and all car parking is on the street, supervised by CCTV cameras. A hybrid system of loadbearing timber-frame external walls and wide-span steel joists provides open-plan interiors that offer occupiers three alternative room layouts. It also features ambitious energy and water conservation, and each unit comes with a three-year guarantee that heating bills will be no greater than £320 a year.

Housebuilding is about to explode. It is becoming more and more polarised between the agile and the slow

Finally, a pioneering community trust, drawn up by American lawyer Wayne Hyatt, requires occupants to contribute to the insurance and maintenance of the estate and facilities such as an internet cafe. As whoever moves in must sign it, this covenant continues in perpetuity.

Weir did not enter the housebuilding industry through the design side, as is conventional for architects. Instead, after graduating from Newcastle University and just a year and a half's practice at Nottinghamshire council's architecture department, he joined a Derby housebuilder. Then in 1985, he came to Wilcon as managing director of its Midlands division and was promoted to the Wilson Connolly main board in 1998 with responsibility for product development.

"Fellow architects say I've sold my soul to developers," he quips, with no trace of regret. As a career housebuilder, he has lost the architect's obsession with the external appearance of spec housing – at St James, it is neither novel nor inspiring. On the other hand, he retains in abundance that more essential skill of an architect – the ability to think laterally, dynamically, even with vision. These abilities are given full rein by his unique pairing of responsibilities – design and marketing.

"Market research shows us that the punters want conservation expressed in the exteriors of houses. But when they walk through the front door, their expectations rise dramatically. For instance, with the quality of kitchen units, the kitchen has become a dining room and the centre of the house. The lounge could then become an entertainment centre, with a large plasma TV screen taking the place of the fireplace.

"The study has become modern man's garden shed, where he can be alone with his computer. The woman of the house has lost her place of refuge in the kitchen, so the bathroom is now her place of relaxation." With such radical changes taking place in the way people use the spaces in their homes, Wilcon is keen to give their buyers a choice of layouts – hence the open-plan shell and hybrid structural system at St James.

"My real thing is that design covers absolutely everything," he explains. "It's not just a matter of designing new internal layouts. We have to design the building supply chain and contractual arrangements, too." To do this, Wilcon acquired the UK's third largest timber-frame manufacturer, Prestoplan – in marked contrast to Persimmon, which has been tipped to sell its Torwood factory in Ipswich.

Personal effects

Do you live in a Wilcon home?
No, I live in an old barn at Byfield in Northamptonshire, which I converted myself five years ago. How sustainable is your home?
We draw water out of the ground and return waste water to a pond with moorhens and sewage to a septic tank. There’s a large wood-burning fireplace and plenty of thermal insulation. Do you have a family?
I live with my wife Sarah, and have two sons – one a social worker, the other a support teacher. What tapes do you have in your car stereo?
Billie Holiday, Van Morrison, Everything but the Girl, U2, the odd Tamla Motown, Tosca. “And Barry Manilow,” pipes up his secretary Jill. What gives you the biggest buzz when relaxing?
Backing a long-odds winner at the races, and coming up with a bloody good idea while I’m fishing.