Façades in the Age of Free Trade and Intra National Co-operation

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015
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When the British retreated gracefully from Hong Kong in the mid 1990s, they commissioned the building of Chek Lap Kok Airport, one of the largest infrastructure and airport developments ever undertaken.

Contractors were sourced from all over the world, and the end product was a testament to the ingenuity and resolve of the Hong Kong Chinese.

Featuring vast areas of glass, aluminium cladding and standing seam roofs, the airport was one of the largest buildings in floor area ever constructed. It has been commercially operational since 1998, replacing the former Kai Tak Airport, and is an important regional trans-shipment center, passenger hub and gateway for destinations in Mainland China and the rest of Asia.

The airport is the world’s busiest cargo gateway and one of the world’s busiest passenger airports. The initial terminal buildings were designed by Sir Norman Foster, and the facility, built under the direction of an international consultant team, shows that the Hong Kong Chinese are ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating western production methodologies.

The Chinese economic powerhouse has been as remarkable as the rejuvenation of Japan and Germany after the Second World War. The perception that Chinese-made building products are inferior has become as incorrect as the perception of Japanese quality during their economic hey day. China only allows state of the art equipment and processes to be used in its rapidly expanding industrial factories.

China has partnered in many ways with international expertise whether from Europe, the US or Australia to produce high quality, consistently proficient and rapidly improving building systems and products.

The Chinese are not alone in their leap into technical proficiency. The United Arab Emirates and Middle Eastern Countries have invested in aluminium extrusion technology and plants on a massive scale. They have invested in float glass production and have the high levels of technical proficiency normally associated with German/British production systems. Turkey, Thailand and Taiwan are also producing state of the art extrusions of aluminium.

In this day and age, façades and building components can be visualised and detailed in Australia or the US, and then prototyped in China with components from all of these countries. A façade can be tested to Australian, US and European standards before production of the approved design, and inspected and modified by western engineers for prototyping and testing to a very high standard.

One such example is Arkistruct, based in Brisbane Australia. Arkistruct’s production is based in China, though its design team is Australian. Its Chinese affiliates can test façade systems for water penetration and dynamic loads prior to approval.

Where does this leave Australian manufacturers and fabrication of facades? Can they compete in the highly internationalized production systems of the future?

Ed Lippmann’s 8 Chiffley Square used a Chinese cladding manufacturer, and the result to date has been highly satisfactory. It was also delivered at a substantial cost saving over solely Australian façade procurement. Another Chinese company making inroads to Australian procurement is Sun Engineering, which has undertaken the supply of steel infrastructure for mines and heavy engineering in Queensland.

Australian manufacturers have been able to claim that Thailand, Turkey, China, Taiwan and the UAE were “dumping” products on the Australian market over the past decade. Aluminium extrusions are a case in point, where several anti-dumping actions have been successfully held to protect local suppliers.

Glass fibre, float glass, aluminium extrusions, façade assemblies and a myriad of other products for buildings are available from countries with which Australia has recently signed free trade agreements. The Asian Tiger economies have invested in their people and in state of the art production facilities. With a downturn in their economies, and in building activity, they will be looking to expand their market penetration much further.

There are risks involved. Quality assurance for façade assembly is not currently equivalent to the US, Australia or Europe but China and other nations are catching and surpassing our efforts at breakneck speed.

The future for Australian manufacturers and component assemblers must be to embrace the new market entrants and to collaborate at a high level to benefit from greater economies of scale, quicker lead times from research into production, and hopefully higher quality and more robust building facades.

Over the past 15 years, the UAE has built many state of the art high rise buildings in a hotter climate than Australia. Much of their production is designed and built in the UAE. The Burj Khalifa has a façade which was purpose built an aluminium and glass masterpiece for the tallest building in the world.

Australia should not doubt the proficiency of cladding and façade manufacturers in countries to which we have recently signed free trade agreements. Manufacturers who ignore the implied threat to their customer base, who do not create effective collaborations may suffer the consequence of a coming tsunami of technical and productive capacity.

Those who are ahead of the curve will make excellent collaborations and benefit from the association of a truly internationalized façade manufacturing environment.

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