Construction’s 150-Year-Old Infant

Monday, August 24th, 2015
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What can be around for more than a century and a half but still be regarded as being in its infancy? And why would it still be of interest if it has been this slow to really get going?

First let’s rewind to 1855, when a church was blessed by Bishops in the UK. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that so far…except that the ‘church’ looks more like a Meccano set, still in pieces. Pre-blessed and prefabricated in the UK well before radio was invented, let alone television and Grand Designs. The church components were then sent to Australia for assembly as the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Sandridge (Port Melbourne).

Picture courtesy of Holy Trinity Church Port Melbourne archives.

Picture courtesy of Holy Trinity Church Port Melbourne archives.

This was an impressive achievement for the times, requiring a high degree of planning and consideration of the design, fabrication and assembly elements. Just how the parishioners fared within the steel structure during Melbourne’s hot summer days, we don’t know.

We also don’t know whether it was the Church as the client, or the manufacturing contractor who initially advocated this prefabricated approach. Either way, in order to  commit to the project, the client must have embraced the idea and been able to satisfy themselves of its merits, notwithstanding the obvious logistical, technical and organisational challenges it presented.

Fast forward to today and we find that prefabrication and off-site construction is increasingly evident across a wider spectrum of applications, including hospitals, hotels, apartment buildings, multi-site restaurants, train stations, detached houses, offices, service station stores, student accommodation, as well as school and university buildings. It is also being adopted for technically-intensive applications such as cable landing stations, data processing centres, airport traffic control towers, and for chemical processing plants and offshore oil rigs.

But although it is being applied across a wider range of applications, especially those with specific characteristics such as remote locations or restricted site conditions, the prevalence of prefabrication is still at very modest levels in terms of the overall construction industry.

This returns us to my opening question about why the enthusiastic advocates of prefabrication insist that it has such exciting prospects and that this is the time that it will really make its mark in Australia (for the record, I am unashamedly one of those advocates.)

By “really making its mark in Australia,” I mean that prefabrication and off-site construction becomes increasingly commonplace for projects that are not in remote locations or confronted with unusually restricted site conditions. What will it take for this to occur

I look first to clients and major contractors. Clients have particular sway when they insist from the outset of a project that the consultant team considers which elements of the project should be investigated for prefabrication. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the prefabricated iron Church for Sandridge was one of four such churches believed to have been commissioned by the Anglican Church for Australia around that time.

Serial clients such as institutional developers and owners of property assets have both the most to gain across multiple projects and can better justify the investment in understanding and adapting to the changes to the design, co-ordination and delivery associated with exploiting the full benefits on offer from off-site construction.

Just as importantly, we increasingly see that major contractors are incorporating off-site construction into their projects, whether they be from sub-contractors or from newly-created in-house divisions set up specifically to furnish those components. This approach has a number of advantages. First, it enables the contractor to take advantage of the efficiencies that flow, to the extent that the contractor passes on the savings the client may also benefit via a sharper construction price.

Interestingly, the client may not even be aware that prefabricated elements are part of the contractor’s delivery of the project. And where the contractor manages the procurement of the prefabricated components under the head contract without separate reference to the prefabricated elements or suppliers, the  client (and bank, if project funding is involved) see no change to the form of contract or payment conditions that would otherwise be evident and entail specific consideration.

What also points to real change is that we are also seeing new players enter the market as prefabrication manufacturers. As each one tends to adopt higher degrees of manufacturing-style technology, the competitive benchmark is progressively pushed up another notch.

Of course it takes more than just investment in the latest technology to make these initiatives pay off. A holistic and sophisticated approach to manufacturing-style principles across design, materials, assembly processes and supply chain management is also necessary. So we should not be surprised that this is also increasingly evident. Together they are creating a host of exciting and transformational advances for Australia’s construction industry.

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