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.”