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.”

  • Prefabrication just might mean people get used to doing something else in a different way and do it that way without cost savings. Every small prefabrication item has meant extra cost in the building industry in the long run. No Competition. Its amazing to see the real cost savings in doing things the "old way" when you can find skilled labour. The biggest problem has been about deskilling the work force and over zealous taxation, regulation and just silly restriction. Nobody believes in democracy and the free enterprise system working for all when it comes to building anything. We live in a society where even a cleaner saving his pennies and "developing" is seen as a selfish evil person in most of our cities, but they never ask his tenants who were sleeping in a car the day before.

  • Adams is right – Australian prefab is lagging, particularly giving the opportunities it provides for infill development in the nation's sprawling, spatially overextended major cities.

  • Wholesale prefabrication will remain on the fringes of major commercial development. Used it once on an "adaptive re-use" conversion from commercial to residential and the issues with incompatible tolerances between site and factory and programme mis-fits between on-site progress and factory production were never satisfactorily overcome.

  • Money is what its about no one has put money into this ,t has to be developed along a learning curve ,one construction developer in Australia has done this and it nearly sent them out of business but now they know how to do it successfully , and will move on to great success because they put money into development
    of properly shaped precast concrete units We have a lot more knowledge of how to do this successfully if interested it is in the onsite know how

  • Great (and timely) article Andrew! I have just started a small development company to build modular / prefab homes for people living with disability. Its just sooo much easier to design first and replicate the design, than to build a 'standard' home and try to retrofit.

  • As more people seek a sea change even just for the weekend, building a "standard" house on a farm can be a costly proposition. A lot more people are looking into kit homes, prefabs, even converting shipping containers into habitable spaces. So I would say there is a very good potential market for your products.

  • Many have tried to develop a industry and I for one would like very much to see it, however I think the recent FTA deal will China will make investors here think twice. Why on earth would you invest here when you have manufacturing costs in China at a fraction of Australia's? – even with the AUD at 70 to the USD. The Chinese are getting better at quality too, I should know, after a complete mining camp had to be rewired upon arrival to Australia, as my previous employer sent Aussie electrical tradespeople people and inspectors to China to teach them things like Aussie AS3000 wiring rules for prefab construction!

  • Due to demographics Australia has and is ideal to grow the Modular/Prefabricated method of construction. Most of that growth has been with the supply of Project Workforce Accommodation in the Mining & Resources sector and my 38 years plus in the Modular Building Industry I have witnessed and even driven significant change which now very much is within the domain and guidance of the National Construction Code(NCC). Sure there has been some justifiable adverse perceptions of "transportables" often referred to as "Dongas" in the past. We are now seeing in the building industry a fast warming trend to the benefits of modular /prefabricated construction, manufactured off site to high compliance and excellent quality standards. Its a case of not how well it is accepted but how fast new innovations and technologies will be implemented into world class examples of ingenuity of those driving change and growth. Very exciting times lie ahead.

    • What about the distances involved in Australia? The idea of pre-fab has been made very fashionable by lifestyle programs such as Grand Designs but in Europe you can visit a factory in Germany and have the German manufacturer box it up and deliver it three hours later. 3 hours won't get you far in Australia.

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