Do a trip around construction sites throughout Europe and you will see sand and cement being mixed in a silo, delivered to site and put in a wheelbarrow, a few buttons pressed and a perfect mix of render, mortar or cementitious slurry coming out, with bricklayers and plasterers using only what they need and none going to waste.
Too often in Australia, by contrast, a three-tonne truck arrives on site and dumps it all on the floor, with maybe two tonnes at most being used and the remainder wasted.
This, University of Newcastle conjoint professor John Smolders FAIB NBPR-1 said, is but one example where practices within the construction sector throughout the country are less efficient than what they should be.
In another example, gyprock is too often brought to work sites in standard size sheets in neat packages and tight bundles only to have offcuts randomly and loosely packed into skip bins and sent to landfill, Smolders says.
In labour arrangements, ‘first on, last off’ type arrangements create the potential for unproductive workers to be protected from expulsion, while in fabrication, uptake of the safer and more efficient practice of offsite assembly has thus far been limited.
Smolders is not alone in his sentiments. In response to questions about outdated practices, renowned construction sector advisor David Chandler OAM points to images showing sites full of rubbish, cranes standing idle, materials being delivered in a state of chaos, unsafe work practices and poor quality workmanship.
Chandler also talks about a hollowing out of informed buyer capability; innovation and quality of work being compromised by extremely tight margins; larger contractors increasingly wishing to shed risk and transfer unresolved design and responsibility; a lack of measureable change to onsite productivity and uptake of technology having been mostly about moving once manual tasks into the digital world; a watering down in accountability and an ‘under-investment’ in standards as well as a lack of a national approach toward legislation and building control.
“It’s all far from a modern industry,” he said.
To be sure, the sector does produce a little over 50 per cent more in terms of output today per labour hour worked compared with its level 20 years ago, ABS data indicates. This is roughly in line with gains derived throughout the general economy and is more than five times the gains experienced over the same period by the construction sector in the UK.
Still, commentators such as Chandler and Smolders say a number of factors allow wasteful practices to persist. In contrast to places like Singapore and South Korea, Australia has relatively few land constraints and is therefore not subject to the same extent of pressures with regard to efficient uses of land and the need to eliminate waste materials due to limited storage space. Isolation, meanwhile, has meant pressure to keep up with best practice methods from overseas has thus far been limited. A lack of universal benchmark measures which are straightforward and easy to use and understand, Chandler says, means there has been little in the way of pressure to adapt and change. The observed hollowing out of informed buyer capability – especially within government – means there is little pressure at a client end to push for greater innovation.
Another problem, says Jeff Simpson, a director of Sydney-based strategic, financial, operational and assurance services consulting outfit Governance Insight, revolves around a lack of capacity on the part of smaller contractors operating on tight margins to invest in training and upgrades of technology and equipment.
“Despite good intentions, the tender process often comes down to price, and by driving the price down, it makes it difficult for smaller contractors to invest in improving their productivity,” he said.
“Because they are not all that profitable, it is hard for them to borrow and find money to invest training and upgrades to plant and technology, so they will tend to run their plant down to the ground as opposed to having a proper asset management program in place.”
Simpson adds that the project orientated nature of the industry can make it difficult to address issues relating to the broader industry picture in a strategic way.
Going forward, Smolders would like to see increasing volumes of modular or panelised construction from components manufactured in factories. He says the laying of bricks should be relegated to bespoke buildings as opposed to regular practice.
Chandler meanwhile, wants a number of changes including the development of new indices which would measure the effectiveness of preconstruction, construction performance and value for money in construction projects. He says wasteful practices will be challenged as new building enterprises emerge in developing markets and eventually turn their attention to developed economies.
“These businesses will start from scratch,” he said. “No baggage. They will start with entrepreneurs who will look to other industries for best practice. They will see that DfMA is much more important than BIM. They will be more from developing countries where making scarce capital go further is critical.
“[For these enterprises,] passing on fat, lazy construction practices from developing countries will not be viable. Once they get past start up, they will turn their attention to opportunities in developed markets. Game on.”