A widespread change in thinking is required if the design and construction sector in  Australia is to derive the full benefits of prefabrication, the newly appointed boss of an industry body dedicated to promoting use of off-site manufacturing says.

In a recent interview, prefabAUS chief executive officer Warren McGregor said the biggest challenge in embracing prefabrication revolves around a shift in mentality which would see the early engagement of those familiar with off-site construction in the design phase of projects and the breaking down of traditional associations linking modular building with uninspired design.

“The single biggest challenge [in embracing prefabrication] will be the change of mindset involved, and this change needs to be widespread, including clients, contractors, architects and consultants, project managers and suppliers,” McGregor said.

“The higher the prefabrication element of a project, the more construction will be occurring off-site, often at different off-sites. These components have to come together as intended once delivered to site for installation. This highlights the need for an early and more detailed design ‘lock-down’ than would typically be required for conventional on-site construction where modifications are often necessary during the construction process.

"Such modifications can be due to client requested changes or to overcome inconsistencies in design documentation and services installation, for example.”

He added that perceptions regarding prefab construction may lag behind the advances made in the field, with many still equating the practice with bunker-like portable classrooms and drab site offices.

McGregor’s comments come amid fears the construction industry in Australia is not keeping pace with international peers with regard to its embrace of off-site construction.

Last August, renowned building sector advisor David Chandler OAM said the local industry needs to reduce overall construction costs by up to 20 per cent and develop its off-site manufactuing sector to compete with an increasingly global industry.

McGregor said it is difficult to judge how Australia compares internationally in this area as the impetus for innovation differs according to local conditions. In Sweden, for example, a growing prevalence of manufactured homes is being driven by limitations in the construction period associated with seasonal factors.

While prefabricated buildings and components currently account for around three per cent of residential construction in Australia, McGregor added that more research is needed to assess the potential size of the market going forward.

He stressed that prefabrication offers a number of benefits, including shorter building time frames, less waste, less disruption in areas surrounding the site and better outcomes through more controlled manufacturing style processes as well as the ability to purchase complete packages from single suppliers.

McGregor feels, however, that the most significant advantage revolves around the potential to reduce construction costs, citing as an example a 25 per cent cost saving developer Australand says it gained on its The Green apartment project in the inner Melbourne suburb of Parkville through the use of prefabricated elements such as floor cassettes.

He said prefabrication presents important opportunities for local manufacturers. A number of automotive manufacturers, for example, are leveraging their expertise in industrial design and associated technologies to diversify into building products as the domestic automotive sector winds down.

McGregor noted that prefabricated single homes are now commonplace and apartment modules are growing in popularity, but that the nature of adoption elsewhere is more nuanced, with manufactured bathroom pods being increasingly adopted in otherwise conventionally built apartments, hospital and student accommodation and off-site manufactured service shafts being increasingly used for rapid installation in high rise office buildings.

“Almost all large projects in any sector will have elements that are well suited to off-site elements,” he said. “Identifying which prefabrication options make most sense for a particular project and understanding how they are best incorporated into a project is what is required to capture the benefits on offer.”

  • Prefabrication will make construction cheaper, but the increase in prefabrication will also push the development of cheaper, stronger and lighter prefab material, increasing the savings in money and time even more.

    Over time the ordinary construction methods are thus bound to be completely replaced by prefabrication and building a house is bound to become a much less stressful business.

  • We have known this for many years and over the last 8 years we have created this type of construction both in residential and commercial.

  • It is amazing to see how many builders are resistant to prefab — we are in the midst of an apartment boom and most buildings are still being built with conventional materials and techniques — prefabricated apartments would be ideal for all but the most luxurious multi-storey apartment buildings. In the single/dual residential sector, the cost of cranage is typically a sticking point for using much, if any prefabricated materials, which are comparible in cost to traditional alternatives.
    On top of that, as architects we are too often confounded with contractors that prefer to keep doing things 'the old way' under premise of cost savings — in many cases it is a false assumption that traditional methods cost less than a more efficient, low-risk, higher-tech building system, but the current market seems to be full of people working on that premise.
    The only way forward is legislation for State govt to start pushing for more modern processes on all govt projects. Those advanced skills and benefits will then filter down to the rest of the industry over time.

  • As a purchaser I could be attracted to the concept for the obvious benefits outlined in the article. It appears to me the buyer could gain in terms of reduced build time, reduced cost and quality control. Could this then have a resulting negative impact on local trade skills and employment? An extreme possibility is the outsourcing of design and module manufacture to the SE Asian region. What would this do to our building industry?

  • Increased manufacturing including prefabrication in the US is demonstrating the benefits.

    It's worth noting the important improvements created in local and regional employment opportunities as a result.

    We also need a mindset change on imported diesel.

    Better use of our own natural gas to replace imported diesel will be hugely beneficial to the nation. Ask yourself "what are the countries doing with the LNG they buy from us?"

    LNG use in the transport sector is rapidly increasing and Australia is being kept in the dark on this opportunity to ensure we continue to use imported diesel. We are one of the biggest per capita diesel consumers in the world even though we are also one of the worlds largest exporters of LNG.

    Time to wake up to the opportunities in our own backyard.

  • he savings are only realised at the end of a project, that's why repeat build/educated end clients will buy into prefab first. The increase use of BIM will aid prefab as detailed design is shifted to the front of the programme and decisions have to made earlier in the design.

  • But, like a lot of things, humans are resistant to change from what they know. I would also expect that the financial benefits to the constructors are not being passed on as much as they could be. From pure speculation on my part this could be due to constructors being able to make more money with a slight cost benefit to the end purchaser but a sudden significant drop in purchase price would have, as Michael said, a significant short term impact on labour markets locally.
    Prefabrication undoubtedly offers many benefits but the majority of people will stick with what they know. If the prefabrication option had significant cost benefits which were obvious now people might be more inclined to follow.

  • Perhaps it is not so much the mindset but the shear complexity of the path ahead of us. Make no mistake though, prefabrication will come, if for no other reason than the skilled trades that make current site construction possible will be less appealing to future generations in developed countries like Australia. The high level of individual home ownership is also a limiting factor.

  • You only need watch some of the amazing houses built on Grand Designs to realise the benefits quality prefab solutions can provide people. Admittedly we do not have access that they do in the UK where european companies simply prefab and then deliver via car/truck ferry across the channel. But pre fab is certainly smart thinking.

  • When I look at most industrial sites, there does not seem to be a lack of 'pre-fab' works?
    Nor in Mechanical structures.
    So where is the perceived 'lack' of pre-fab acceptance, except maybe private dwellings?

    • You've hit the nail on the head David, the housing markets acceptance of prefabricated components is poor, especially when you consider how alike the houses are. My experiences in industry have demonstrated in general how lacking the design and incorporation of common elements into those designs is in Australia. I can't comment on overseas industry, but as mentioned you see really integrated and well thought out solutions on 'Grand Design', for example.

  • We've been talking about prefabrication for more than 30 years and little has happened … why should it be any different this time around ? Just askin' as it seems that all we ever do is talk.