From a broken home and being homeless to founding a startup that raises £19m from the Reuben brothers to transform housebuilding, Joseph Daniels of Project Etopia breaks the mould for ‘getting into property’. And he’s still only 27. Adam Branson meets him.
Joseph Daniels is sitting at a table in the bar of the Goring Hotel in London’s Victoria. He is alert and talks at a rate of knots. He rarely finishes a sentence – or rather there are sentences within sentences – his mouth seemingly unable to keep up with his brain.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. At one stage in the interview, an obvious question occurs: have you ever done an IQ test? “When I was 15 and no one believed me – I got an IQ of 174,” he replies. That places him comfortably into the ‘genius’ category.
Daniels is the founder of Project Etopia, which he describes as an ‘ECI Tech’ company, standing for energy, construction, intelligent technology. On the face of it, Project Etopia is a modular housing business, but such is the combination of advanced materials and technologies – many of which Daniels invented or invented collaboratively – that placing it in that particular silo is something of a crime against taxonomy. So, what’s the big idea? And what are Daniels’ plans for the business?
Certainly, Daniels did not have the easiest start in life, something about which he is incredibly candid. This is not a property entrepreneur born with money to lose. “I’m from a broken home,” he says. “My dad was physically abusive, violent. [He] used to beat me up every day. My mum was sectioned when I was 15 with a mental illness. I became homeless for the first time at 15 and, since then, I’ve been homeless four times.”
Daniels casually mentions “suicide attempts” as if they were a minor detail before moving on to describe how he began to develop his ideas for what would become Project Etopia. He left school without any qualifications, but had a thirst for knowledge, intelligence and a profound sense of concern for the environment generally and climate change in particular.
“I’m self-taught,” he says. “I’ve got an online programme, call them degrees or whatever you want to call them. In my opinion it doesn’t really matter who certifies a degree at the end of the day. We are developing isothermal air batteries because I studied thermodynamics, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. I’ve literally created the best electrical networking a house can use.”
In addition, Daniels taught himself all about architecture – he has a design completed for his own future home – as well as various IT skills. “I can use unreal gaming engines,” he says. “I can use graphic design; I can do programming. I suppose you could say [I can do] technological hardware development, PCB [printed circuit board] development. I can use a range of about 40 softwares. It’s all self-taught. Application, you know…”
Aged 23 – he is still just 27 – Daniels had his big idea. “I realised that if you combine a construction hyper material with AC electrical generation and storage with smart intelligence, you can effectively systemise any approach using different variants and create any product of any size of any building type,” he says. In other words, by combining the right materials, cutting edge energy production and storage and technology, he thought he could produce any sort of building that would be both technologically advanced and environmentally friendly.
He certainly did his research. “I went around China [and] studied over, I think, 50 manufacturers in different places, then popped down to Shenzhen to understand the process, how manufacturing was done on scale, different things like that – building materials, IOT [Internet of Things] devices,” he says.
The resulting system can lay claim to some pretty impressive statistics. “Our system officially is 10 times traditional building regs for airtightness and passiveness and twice the passivhaus standard,” says Daniels. “Our building material is hurricane proof, flood proof and we’ve done seismic testing.”
Project Etopia invested £2m in a factory in Cheshire to produce its panellised units and further funds to acquire its first housing site, in Corby. Today, around 19 of the development’s 47 units have been completed and the first residents have already moved in. “Two of our houses have got Instagram accounts – they love it, man,” says Daniels. Just as importantly, the units also provide proof of concept. Not only are the homes highly energy efficient, they actually produce more clean energy than they consume. “Our houses come in at -0.7 tonnes of CO2 per year,” he adds.
Daniels won’t go into the details, but he says that several more projects will be on site by the end of the first quarter of this year. “One’s with a housing association, two council, one private developer,” he says. “And there are the other sites that we’re looking at acquiring or are in the process of acquiring and then there’s another two council [deals] which are literally finalising.”
Elsewhere, Project Etopia is working on a demonstration project at the BRE’s Watford Innovation Park. In part, the purpose of the project is to act as an exemplar for the BRE’s new BPS 7014 standard, which has been drawn up for modular homes. The idea is that the standard will help allay fears among insurers, mortgage lenders and others about the quality of what used to be known widely as ‘prefabs’, with all the connotations with post-war housing that entails.
However, Daniels clearly also sees the project as an opportunity to demonstrate quite how sustainable Project Etopia’s system can be. The launch of the project is expected imminently and Daniels says that it will be demonstrably the “highest performing” building in the world. “I want to be the leader on climate change,” he adds. “If we build a million homes every year, we can save six million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.”
A million homes a year? Is that realistic? Daniels laughs. “I don’t know about a year – if I build a million homes a year, I’d be the biggest builder ever,” he says. “But I’d like to build a million homes; I’d like to get there. We’ll build on six continents by the end of next year.”
Indeed, Project Etopia has already completed its first project in Africa. In November last year, the company announced that it had completed a demonstrator home in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. The superstructure for the 63 sq m unit was completed in just three hours by local workers and in total cost around £25,000, including materials and labour. The building is capable of generating up to 20kwh every day, although it only requires 3kwh to function. “I flew to Namibia to build something no-one had ever built before,” says Daniels.
An earlier project, constructed in the summer of 2018, demonstrates the adaptability of the Project Etopia system. The extension to Brightlingsea Primary School in Colchester was completed – from putting a spade in the ground to practical completion – took just six weeks to complete. Moreover, the project cost just £150,000, some £70,000 than would be typical using conventional methods. Again, its environmental credentials are excellent.
With these projects under its belt, Project Etopia now has its eyes set on aggressive growth. This year, the plan is for turnover to reach £100m across all constituent companies, something that will be aided by the £19m investment the company received from the billionaire Reuben brothers in September. Add to that the presence of Lord Stanley Fink, the former CEO of the Man Group hedge fund, and it is clear that Project Etopia isn’t exactly lacking savvy backers.
So, how has Daniels managed to drum up such interest? “Reaching out to people, man,” he replies. “It’s just building relationships really.” This, he admits is not something that comes naturally, but says that his earlier life experiences forced him to become more outgoing. “I probably was on the spectrum, but homelessness and hard knocks meant I had to figure out how to be social,” he says. “I think it was fortunate that I learned the social skills and now I’m fortunate enough to have [the] social understanding to be able to collaborate with people and communicate.”
Those skills are also evident in the calibre of the team Daniels is building. Just last week, it was announced that Project Etopia had hired James Pikett, formerly head of development at Berkeley Group, as development director. The appointment followed hot on the heels of Rosanna Lawn, who won the Estates Gazette’s Rising Star Award last year for her work setting up networking organisation CREation, joining the company as global brand and PR director. “So, we’ve just been resourcing,” says Daniels. “We’re at 63 people combined at the moment. We’ll be at hopefully 100 employees in the next four months.”
So, Project Etopia is scaling fast. What’s more, it can’t be long before the company catches the eye of central government. After all, climate change and housebuilding are two of the most politically charged issues of the day – and Daniels’ business is at the forefront of both. “Climate change and housebuilding are the two main focuses and they need a young advocate,” he says. “I’m kind of like ‘hey guys, I’ve literally built it’.”