Want to slash on-site build times on your next project?

If so, one example of how this can be done is Barcelona Housing Systems in Spain. All components are pre-cut in a factory. This includes panels for foundations, stairs and balconies, frame (floor/roof base/horizontal), load (wall) (vertical) (centre and perimeter), electrical installations and plumbing for kitchens and bathrooms, facades and roofs. To facilitate assembly, the panels contain integrated electrical circuits, water conduits and windows and doors.

The result? Under traditional construction methods, the company says it takes around 51 weeks on-site to deliver a four storey (eight home) project. Recently, it completed such a development with just five weeks on site.

Welcome to the world of industrialised construction – buildings constructed using systems which can be refined and replicated across multiple projects under a concept which meshes the ‘mass production’ approach common in manufacturing with the customisation required for individual buildings in construction (more on this below).

Potential gains are enormous. In a 2017 report, McKinsey & Company nominated the rethinking of design and engineering processes as one of seven strategies which could boost the global productivity of the building sector by between 50 and 60 percent and could create $1.6 trillion in additional value through greater efficiency.

Even greater gains, it says, could be achieved if parts of the industry shifted toward a production-based system of project delivery.

“The seven areas that need to be addressed can boost productivity on projects by some 50 to 60 percent,” the McKinsey report said.

“However, if construction were to depart from entirely project-based approaches to more consistently employ a manufacturing-like system of mass production with much more standardisation and manufacturing of modules and parts in factories offsite, the productivity boost could be an order of magnitude greater.”

Barcelona Housing Systems is not alone in embracing this approach. In construction of small mines, Finnish company Outotech has designed a mobile floatation plant which it says is 30 percent faster to install and delivers savings of 30 percent in labour and 20 percent in capital expenditure. In China, Broad Sustainable Buildings claims cost savings of between ten and 30 percent by applying industrial principles to construction processes and engaging in offsite manufacturing. In one case, it erected a 30 storey hotel with just fifteen days on-site.

Similar approaches are being adopted in Australia. In Brisbane, Lend Lease constructed what is believed to be the world’s tallest engineered timber office building by gross floor area at 25 King Street under a production type system which it has been refining since completing its Forte Apartment complex using cross laminated timber in Melbourne in 2012. Under this system, prefabricated wood beams are imported from Europe and cut to size in a Sydney factory before being transported to site in flat-packs or modules. This, the company says, has shaved several months off the build program and has led to cleaner and safer sites with no off-cuts or waste.

In Melbourne, Hickory is delivering a 60-level project at Collins House using methods which incorporate its own volumetric construction system as well as fast tracked façade and fit-out delivery. This the company says, will shave 30 percent off program timeframes.

All this raises questions about how industrialised construction works and how it will transform Australia’s building sector.

For answers, Sourceable spoke with Andy Cunningham, Regional Director at architecture, engineering and construction software provider Autodesk.

According to Cunningham, industrialised construction is about blending the economies of scale commonly associated with the mass production environment in industrialised settings with the customisation commonly demanded by clients on construction projects.

Traditionally, Cunningham says construction has operated on the basis of each project being different and unique. Whilst this enables flexibility to cater for different client preferences and requirements, it also creates opportunities for risk, waste and errors.

By contrast, he said manufacturing processes enable consistency and replicability yet entail drawbacks in their limited flexibility.

Asked to clarify the difference between industrialised construction and prefabrication, Cunningham says prefabrication can form part of industrialised construction but stresses that the latter is a much broader concept. Industrialised construction, he said, looks at the entire build program and seeks to deliver a systematic approach to issues such as sourcing and supply chain management, transport and logistics and installation processes.

“If you take the manufacturing industry at the moment and compare it to construction, the manufacturing industry has very little flexibility, very high rigidity in process,” Cunningham said.

“It’s a known outcome. It’s repeatable. It’s over and over and over again.”

“Inversely, in construction, there is pretty much complete customisation, complete one-offs every time. It gives complete flexibility but with that comes the downsides of the waste, the errors and those sorts of things.”

“We are looking at somewhere in the middle of the two. Not the complete flexibility and chaos of construction today and not the rigidity of automotive production where you are hashing out thousands of cars one after the other – somewhere in the middle where you have the right balance between customisation and predictability and process.”

“It’s mass customisation but in a structured way.”

According to Cunningham, advantages of industrialised construction accrue in several areas.

Since industrialised construction takes place in a known environment using processes which are well understood and outcomes which are predictable, this leads to fewer errors, fewer offcuts and lower levels of waste.

As well, the systematic nature of industrialised construction can help to facilitate tighter operations in supply chain processes and supply agreements. This in turn facilitates greater predictability and greater certainty about costs, delivery specifications and delivery timeframes.

Finally, industrialised construction can also help to improve safety. This can occur as the more systematic build method enables planning and analysis of effective approaches toward installation processes and logistics. Industrialised construction can also help to deliver sites which are cleaner, better organised and safer with fewer trades needing to work onsite simultaneously and more work being performed in a controlled factory environment.

Going forward, Cunningham says greater take-up of industrialised construction will arise from a combination of increasing cost pressures and a greater push toward customisation. As an example of the latter point, he points to home building, where he says many buyers wish to have the flexibility to stylise their homes to suit their own preferences. This applies across both detached housing and multi-storey construction.

To enable this to happen, Cunningham says three things must happen.

First, the industry needs to devise effective ways to learn from past building approaches and to use data driven insights to drive better practices and outcomes.

Next, greater acceptance of visual content is needed in building approval processes. The best technology, Cunningham said, will be restricted in its value unless it can be applied in development applications. He says the industry needs to help governments understand the value of industrialised construction both to themselves and to taxpayers.

Finally, designers and builders of the future must be educated and familiar with technology and a more systematic approach to building.

To deliver housing and infrastructure at an affordable cost, Australia must improve construction practices.

By adopting industrialised construction, significant progress can be made.