“This highly successful outcome serving Australia and Australia’s interest is a strong sign that the Australian prefabrication industry is truly merging to mainstream.”

(image source: CC Pines)

So declared Greg Hammond, who in August completed a five-year term as Assistant Secretary, Project Management Branch of the Overseas Property Office (OPO), at the PrefabAUS conference which is being held online over four sessions last week and this week.

The Overseas Property Office sits within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and manages the Commonwealth Government’s portfolio of property which is located overseas but is occupied by Australian Government employees and their family members.

Hammond was referring to the Australian Embassy building in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, which opened in March this year and is co-located with the Canadian embassy on the Canadian embassy compound.

According to Hammond, this is the first chancery in the world to be constructed using prefabrication.

In his presentation, Hammond described the solution which was applied and the process through which project delivery occurred. He also talked about the advantages of using prefab for a project like this along with lessons which have been learned.

He stresses that views expressed in the presentation (and reported in this article) are his own personal opinions and do not represent any official position of the Australian Government.

As mentioned above, the Australian Embassy in Rabat is understood to be the first chancery in the world to be constructed using prefabrication.

The building consists of fifteen modules. Each module is based on a 40-foot shipping container frame (the modules are not actual shipping containers). Each was fitted out with services, joinery, wet areas and finishes.

Together, the modules provide 450 sqm of secure A grade office space.

The modules were shipped from Botany to Valencia and then on to Casablanca. Originally, the intention was to then transport the modules by road to Rabat. However, COVID restrictions meant that in fact they needed to be stored in Casablanca for six months before this could happen.

To keep them safe from elements, the modules were racked and stacked below deck during shipping.

The modules were fabricated by Australian modular building company Modular Building Systems – a subsidiary of offsite manufacturing and modular building solutions provider Fleetwood Building Solutions.  The main contractor for the project was CC Pines whilst Global Project Solutions was the external project manager.

As mentioned above, the modules were not actual shipping containers. Whilst a standardised 40-foot shipping container is 2.4 meters in height (and 2.1 meters in width), the height of the modules extended to 3.9 meters.

Nevertheless, they were able to be certified by specialist insurance services provider Lloyd’s of London as meeting the international standard for a 40-foot shipping container. This enabled them to be transferred by sea vessel whilst also remaining transportable by road.

Prior to this solution and certification, prefab options had been limited to oversized modules which required bulk break cargo, actual shipping containers or panelised construction (rather than the 3D volumetric solution which was applied).

Each of these had drawbacks.

With bulk break cargo, the number of ships which can handle this is limited and this comes at additional cost.

Meanwhile, actual shipping containers would not have met owner requirements of the Australian Government.

Finally, panelised construction is a good option but requires a larger supporting workforce for a longer period of time. As it turns out, this would have been particularly disadvantageous in light of COVID restrictions.

In addition, a panelised solution would have required the panels to be erected and constructed on site in Morocco. As a result, rectification of any underlying problems or issues which were not identified until construction would have been costly and difficult.

By contrast, under the 3D volumetric solution applied, the entire modules were tested and commissioned in Australia before being delivered in country by local trades.

According to Hammond, the new embassy was intended to serve as a prototype. If successful, it would serve as a new method of planning and delivery which would supplement existing methodologies for OPO.

It has been a success. Since the embassy opening, the Overseas Property Office has received requests for Australian contacts from USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland and Argentina. Architecture students in Belgium have used it as a case study and built their own model. Moroccan architecture students have also visited the embassy as a case study.

Due to its location in Morocco, the solution needed to comply with Moroccan standards as well as Australian standards.

With its co-location on the Canadian embassy compound, meanwhile, the chancery also needed to accommodate high-level Canadian requirements. These includes keeping construction timeframes to a minimum (a challenge in Morocco where timeframes can be protracted); minimising disruption around the Canadian embassy; being of suitable quality and being sympathetic to the finishes of the Canadian chancery whilst remaining uniquely Australian.

Speaking generally, Hammond says offsite manufacturing is best suited to projects which contain several features.

These include a high level of complexity, a high degree of repetition (e.g. similar spaces such as hotel rooms), stringent quality requirements and/or onsite logistical constraints.

For such projects, prefab offers shorter lead times, economies of scale and a high degree of quality and consistency.

In addition, offsite fabrication can offer further benefits on overseas projects in cases where:

  • On-location construction time needs to be minimised
  • There is limited access to quality construction material
  • Construction industry capability for highly complex construction such as a chancery is limited in a given location; and
  • Support for a local construction team (logistics, accommodation etc.) is limited in a given location.

In the specific case of the OCO, additional benefits of using prefab for overseas offices include:

  • Supporting Australian industry and jobs in terms of contractors, trades, materials supply and logistics support
  • Showcasing Australian supply and construction capability; and
  • Greater control and predictability over quality, schedules and budget in a factory environment.

These advantages were significant.

Through the prefabrication model, the Office spent 75 to 80 percent of its project budget within Australia. Under previous delivery models, a similar percentage of the spend has typically gone overseas.

As mentioned above, meanwhile, the project has generated interest in Australia’s prefabrication capability internationally.

For this project, Hammond says volumetric construction offered two advantages over panelised solutions.

First, it minimised the level of activity and number of workers required on site. On this project, no Australian workers needed to travel to Morocco for the reassembly of the modules. This turned out to be particularly advantageous in light of COVID and travel disruptions.

Second, the entire solution was able to be tested and commissioned in Australia before being delivered in country by local trades. This helped to maintain the quality of the outcome and ensure that all underlying issues were identified locally prior to shipping.

Under a panelised solution, underlying issues may not have been identified until the construction stage in Morocco. At this point, rectification may have been difficult and costly.

In regard to this project, Hammond notes several lessons and observations.

First, with any innovation, it is important to fail early and quickly. This is particularly the case in the public sector where you are accountable for taxpayer funds.

Whilst going prefab was a risk, Hammond says Australia’s prefabrication industry had developed to a sufficient standard that the benefits in giving this a try outweighed were compelling.

As with any other form of change, meanwhile, a shift to prefab requires a considered approach to change management and communication.

First, the Office needed to adjust as its model of full design and headworks construction was not compatible with a design for manufacturing approach.

To enable innovation, meanwhile, focus in planning and procurement needed to shift from prescriptive-based outcomes performance-based outcomes.

On communication, Hammond avoided the word ‘prefabrication’ and instead spoke of ‘offsite construction’.

Within Australia, Hammond says prefabrication is still associated with demountable school classrooms. Within Morocco, there were concerns that the term ‘fabrication’ may imply a lack of commitment to Australia’s presence in the country.

Going forward, Hammond sees opportunities for use of modular elsewhere.

In Tarawa, capital of the small Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, the OPO has engaged with the Australian prefabrication industry for the redevelopment of Australian High Commission properties.

Current facilities are unsuited to Kiribati’s tropical climate and have exceeded their economic life.

The project will include a new chancery along with five residential properties.

For the OPO, the Pacific has been the most challenging environment in which to deliver projects during COVID-19.

With this project, however, prefabrication of the panels and pods is complete for all buildings and has continued to progress during multiple Melbourne lockdown. The completed modules will remain in storage until Kiribati restrictions ease – which is hoped to be in late 2021/22.

The prime contractor for this is Reeves Construction. The fabricator is Unitised Building and the external project manager is TSA.

As well the OPO will seek to use a delivery model which is similar to that used in Rabat in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and the Tuvalu capital of Funafuti.

The Abuja facility will include a chancery and a head of mission residence to be delivered in Australia’s own compound. Around 40 modules will be built.

Funafuti includes a combined chancery and representational area and head of mission residence in what will represent a new type of architecture in the region and will serve as a regional prototype for a potential new form of construction.

In particular, Hammond says use of certified module frames (either 40 foot or 20 foot) as a volumetric solution opens up opportunities internationally in the public and private sector.

He says this type of arrangement may be particularly suited in the Indo Pacific region. This is due to its proximity, limited local construction industry capability for complex projects, challenging logistics and the need for permanent supporting infrastructure which represents a solution that is both good quality and environmentally sustainable.

Hammond says the prefabrication industry has come a long way since he first visited the PrefabAUS conference in 2017.

Whilst he acknowledges that going modular represented an act of faith, he says the industry has delivered upon expectations.

“Very clearly to me, since the journey started in 2017, the Australian prefabrication industry has grown exponentially in capability and capacity,” Hammond said.

“Thank you for returning my confidence in the prefabrication industry and not disappointing the significant risk I took.”