Ask many Aussies about prefabricated homes and they will conjure up images about substandard stock from the 80s or 90s noted for its lack of character.

They probably won’t think of Australia’s first carbon positive house or Lend Lease’s 10-storey Forte apartment complex in Melbourne.

For some time, there has been talk of a shift toward offsite manufacturing in Australian construction. A headline on Domain earlier this year suggested that prefabrication could account for one in 10 Australian homes within a decade.

Yet progress is slow. Whilst data is scarce, industry body prefabAUS estimates that prefabrication accounts for only three per cent of houses and apartments being constructed in Australia.

That raises questions about what is holding modular construction back.

Associate Professor Tuan Ngo, director of the Advanced Protective Technologies for Engineering Structure Group and research director of the ARC Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Prefabricated Housing at the University of Melbourne, says uptake of prefabrication is happening more slowly than expected.

To be sure, Ngo cautions that the above market share figure is understated as this takes into account only buildings where prefabrication accounts for most or all of the building’s construction. Include cases where prefabricated components were used on buildings primarily constructed using traditional framing methods and Ngo reckons prefab’s share is closer to 10 per cent – a proportion he says could stretch to 15 or 20 per cent within five years. As part of research he is conducting, Ngo and his team will be looking to obtain greater data and insight into the market share of prefabrication.

Nevertheless, he says Australia’s prefab industry is relatively tiny. In Sweden, he says, prefab accounts for roughly 80 per cent of the market. In Japan, Germany, New Zealand and England, he says this figure is 20 to 25 per cent, 20 per cent, almost 20 per cent and around 10 per cent respectively.

Ngo says prefab offers numerous advantages. Compared with onsite fabrication, he says offsite manufacturing can be done faster, cheaper, more safely and more sustainably with less waste. At the moment, he says waste materials in construction stand at around 40 per cent. Were prefabrication to be used, he says this could be slashed to a fraction of that.

Nevertheless, he says several barriers exist. For now, he says Australia’s offsite manufacturing supply chain is fragmented and lacks depth, and is yet to reach the scale needed to deliver upon the full extent of potential cost savings. Across the industry, knowledge about how to deliver using prefabrication is limited. This is not just within the supply chain but also amongst builders and designers – especially lower and mid-tier players. Prefab also suffers from an association with bland modular houses churned out in past decades. On this score, Ngo says Australia is now seeing good prefabrication work, with architects creating interesting designs.

Going forward, Ngo says action is needed in several areas. More research is required and researchers need to communicate knowledge with builders and designers. Better marketing is needed to make prefab more attractive. As the automotive industry shuts down, skills coming out of this area could be used for prefab.

Dr Karen Manley, an Associate Professor of Construction Management at Queensland University of Technology, agrees that countries such as Sweden and Japan are in front of Australia. Having recently visited those two countries, Manley said their approaches toward prefabrication differ.

In Japan, where Manley says the industry is being driven by a combination of chemical giants and fear of earthquakes, massive factories pump out entire high-tech modules and complete homes, and have large co-located R&D facilities set up for visits from prospective home owners with different sub-buildings that demonstrate the superiority of their methods. One room enables people to compare the smell of volatile organic compounds with that of zero VOCs. Another has rocket-style seating for 12 people on an elevated platform. The lights are dimmed and a large growling rumble howls whilst the seats jostle to a high magnitude earthquake, demonstrating first-hand the benefits of factory level quality control and robust fastenings.

In Sweden, prefabricators tended to be smaller family businesses which focus largely on timber and have a lower level of prefabrication focused around structural insulated panels.

In Australia, Manley says barriers stem from several areas. Courtesy of bland portable housing constructed for mining areas, prefabrication has a poor image among many. More important, any mainstream shift toward industrialised housing would create widespread disruption throughout the sector’s supply chain and 1.1 million strong workforce. Having operated one way for decades, many builders are unwilling to experiment with new ways of working. Although offsite manufacturing can deliver lower energy costs, Manley says consumers may not attach as much value to this as they do to up-front cost savings.

Finally, whilst prefab’s business case is compelling, Manley says the industry is experiencing difficulty in demonstrating this through data. During a recent study, QUT found quantifiable data about prefab’s benefits to be thin on the ground apart from some coming out of Europe.

David Michel, managing director of Sydney-based bathroom, laundry and kitchen modules offsite manufacturer Bedrock Offsite Modular Solutions, says talk amongst the industry has shifted from prefabrication being an evolution to one of being a movement.

Nevertheless, he says Australia’s efforts are lagging. Whereas the United Kingdom has undertaken substantial actions following a review conducted last year by quantity surveyor Mark Farmer and Singapore has adopted bold policy initiatives, the Australian Government has been absent in this space. This, he says, is disappointing in light of policy objectives surrounding national productivity and housing affordability.

Michel agrees that prefabrication faces barriers to greater adoption.

First, he talks of a lack of understanding about prefabrication among architects and builders. In this regard, he says the industry needs to look at what is being taught about prefabrication in courses such as architecture or construction management by educational institutions. These institutions face challenges when teaching about prefab in light of the rapidly evolving nature of the field.

Beyond training people to work with prefabricated parts, another challenge revolves around equipping TAFE course and trade schools with the capacity to teach people how to actually do offsite manufacturing in the factory. In Bedrock’s case, Michel says that only two of his 40 workers on the production line possessed a trade qualification. The remainder had to be taught in-house.

This was challenging for TAFEs, he said, as offsite manufacturing is neither wholly construction nor wholly manufacturing but rather a hybrid of the two and as such does not fit neatly into common trade classifications.

A challenge flowing on from there revolves around perceptions. This is an issue not only with consumers as mentioned above but also among architects – many of whom Michel says fear that offsite fabrication will lead to a compromised build and design quality, as well as an unwanted restriction on their design capability or aesthetics and even a threat to their business model.

These fears, he says, are misplaced.

Far from compromising quality, he says fabrication which is performed in a controlled environment enhances precision.

Furthermore, he points out that greater standardisation could drive efficiency without compromising quality. In a project with 200 apartments, for example, he says it is not uncommon to get more than 100 different bathroom module types, sizes and layouts. Each needs to be detailed and some vary by as little as 30 millimetres in size. It would be better, he said, to have four to six bathroom types and to roll these out across all units.

Since prefabrication on new builds needs to be ‘designed in’ from the start, Michel says offsite manufacturing is further being held back by traditional building models in which designs are ‘pushed’ out to builders and trade contractors and issues associated with ‘buildability’ are not afforded suitable prominence in design.

Finally, whilst there are established market players, Michel says the depth and maturity of the supply chain represents a challenge. Thanks largely to high costs and the overhead intensive nature of the operation, he says establishing viable manufacturing operations in Australia is difficult.

On this front, he would like to see more government support. This, he said, could include tax breaks for startups in early years.

Michel says prefab’s benefits are significant. Most important, he says, is the accuracy and consistency which is achieved through performing fabrication using 3D design and 3D manufacturing equipment in a controlled environment which is protected from external elements. As an example, Michel says steel printed in his own company’s factory is printed to within 0.2 millimetres accuracy with zero waste. Waterproofing and tiling, as well, are performed with precision. This, he says, enables not only greater design innovation as difficult shapes are cut with greater accuracy but also a better-quality build.

Other advantages revolve around safety and the elimination of waste.

On safety, Michel says fabrication performed offsite is done without interference from elements, other personnel and other on-site activities, and is done away from members of the public. Through use of assembly lines, meanwhile, tasks such as tiling, painting and gluing can be performed at comfortable waste height with reduced strain on backs, shoulders and arms.

Michel also says waste savings are significant. Taking the example of bathrooms in apartments, he reckons onsite fabrication generates around two to three cubic metres of waste per bathroom. In offsite environments, he says this is saved.

This delivers benefits not only in sustainability but also in cost savings. On one project involving 800 bathroom modules, Michel reckons the builder saved between $500 and $800 per bathroom through offsite manufacturing simply by avoiding handling and removal costs for the waste generated.

Aside from waste avoidance, meanwhile, proponents of offsite manufacturing say other cost savings are achievable through reduced onsite labour and faster builds. In its Forte Apartment complex in Melbourne, for example, Lend Lease reckons it shaved four months off construction time frames (and associated costs) by using timber which was cut offsite.

Faster time frames also enable residential and commercial landlords to bring stock to market faster and to bring in rent-paying tenants sooner. Using his own modelling, Michel reckons 30 per cent cost savings are achievable. This number, he stresses, incorporates implied savings through indirect means such as material waste reduction along with those savings which are of a more direct nature.

Going forward, Michel says developers will sit down at the development assessment stage and look at a variety of prefabrication options upfront whilst working out the most suitable design and construction strategy.

Most likely, he says, they will choose combinations of prefab systems including volumetric (full room modules), panel systems, cassette systems, and structural and services systems.

To picture these, he encourages people to think about Lego, Meccano and Ikea. Buildings, he says, will be a combination of those concepts. In some instances, they may be more Meccano or more Lego; other times, they may be entirely Lego. For instance, in both the United Kingdom and United States, he says full apartments are being manufactured offsite and simply craned in like a cassette. Early data suggests that in addition to significant cost savings, this methodology is resulting in 50 per cent time savings.  This is perfect for affordable housing.

Australia has significant opportunities through prefabrication.

To grasp these, sensible strategies will be required.