Back in 1837, when London-based carpenter Henry Manning constructed a house that was built in components and then shipped and assembled by British emigrants, Australia had become home to what may have been the first advertised dwelling to be built using prefabricated construction.

By 1853, several hundred portable homes per year were arriving from Liverpool, Boston and Singapore. Australia appears to have been a leader in the practice of on-site assembly using shipped modules – albeit with these modules largely coming from overseas.

Fast forward to today, however, and refrains that Australia is behind much of the world in this area are growing louder.

Nevertheless, some remain optimistic about the opportunities ahead.

Rob Adams, Director of City Design and Projects at the City of Melbourne, for example, says the push toward prefabrication will grow amid an environment in which time and cost savings associated with offsite manufacturing are become more apparent, denser cities are driving an imperative for less traffic disruption during building and the importance of minimising waste as well as occupational health and safety risks on site is growing.

“Certainly, I don’t think Australia is anywhere amongst the leaders,” Adams said when asked about whether or not Australia was falling behind in terms of prefab uptake. “If that warrants a statement of falling behind, I think that is true.

“But I think increasingly as cities move toward higher densities – and there is every indication that Australian cities are going to need to do that to keep up with the expansion of population within the cities – then the opportunities for prefabrication I think are going to be greater.

“All the levers, all the indicators are right at the moment for Australia to start looking very seriously at the different systems that are available for prefabrication.”

Adams says there are several specific areas of opportunity. As concerns about the emergence of ‘box’ type apartments grow, he feels there are significant opportunities to embrace factory-fabricated apartments which are adaptable and would allow for spaces in various parts of the apartments to be maximised or minimised according to different activities which occupants wished to perform at various times of the day. This would allow, for example, most or all of the apartment space to be transformed into being a kitchen, bathroom, living room or bedroom space at different times of the day – a concept almost akin to a convertible style apartment.

In condensed areas such as smaller sites on tram routes, as well, modular systems with precise tolerances can provide a way to build and lock things together while providing good insulation and waterproofing that would be able to be performed by smaller contractors.

In terms of systems, he says, container-like arrangements which see entire volumes pre-designed and slotted in allow for precise tolerances and are easily used in high, low or medium rise structures in high-density areas.  Engineering timber solutions such as cross laminated timbers are also taking off, he says, as are systems involving entire walls as units and larger modules which can be handled comfortably by a couple of tradespeople on condensed areas.

Another area of opportunity is healthcare. When looking at countries where the cost of building is generally similar to the cost in Australia, Total Alliance Health Partners International managing director Aladin Niazmand said Australia’s cost of building public hospitals is often still four times greater. He says a more industrialised approach toward construction was the only realistic and proven way to drive costs down in this sector.

“The cost of hospitals in Australia (especially public hospitals) is a scandal,” he said.

Niazmand says the prefab sector itself needs to move away from the notion of ‘bespoke’ solutions and instead embrace the greater degree of automation which offsite manufacturing offers. In much the same ways as you cannot design individual small cars from scratch and expect them to be built for $14,990, Niazmand says the industrialisation of buildings and components was best approached using standardised production methods. TAHPI factories in Bangalore (India) and Dubai, for instance, are set up to produce whole room modules as well as structures and facades for hospitals in a highly automated process. By contrast, he says, individually customised solutions are not where prefab excels as a construction method.

Adams speculates that prefabrication may still be suffering from lingering associations with ugly and inferior housing commission units from the 1950s and 60s, and that people today may not realise the extent to which thermal performance, durability and lightweight nature of the panels had advanced, especially in places like Europe.

“We are not talking about the conventional heavy concrete panels anymore,” he said. “That’s pretty much an outdated way of building.

“I think there is a perception that this (prefab) is a cheap and nasty way of building. We need to get rid of that, because it doesn’t have to be.”