Amid savage cutbacks in domestic manufacturing capacity, many in the construction sector throughout Australia are becoming increasingly concerned about a growing reliance on imported building materials and the implications this has for the ability of the industry to deliver high performance and safe buildings and infrastructure.
Such concerns are especially relevant in light of the growing use of prefabrication in modern construction. One developer specialising in low cost housing describes homes he sells as being reminiscent of ‘kit homes’ involving components built offshore which are merely assembled here – all at a fraction of the cost compared with using a local builder even after allowing for expenses associated with regular trips abroad to inspect components on the part of his building surveyor.
Another, when bidding for a recent contract in the Polynesian Islands, found himself undercut by a Chinese developer to the tune of a whopping 60 per cent.
The future has arrived and Australia must be careful to ensure what happened in the fashion retail industry – which has been hammered by the web and its ability to open up competition from imports – does not happen in construction. If offshore prefabrication and ‘Lego kitting’ becomes the new norm, a large chunk of that which has traditionally been built in local markets will be constructed offshore.
That has implications not just for the employment prospects of local carpenters, joiners and prefabricators, but also for builders, whose function will increasingly revolve more narrowly around assembly as opposed to the full carriage of the project from inception to completion.
It also has consequences for unions, who in order to best serve their members’ interests will increasingly need to broaden their focus beyond securing maximum increases in remuneration to engaging in constructive dialogue with employer groups about how to maximise competitiveness and keep jobs onshore.
There are further implications for quality assurance. In the absence of robust inspection regimes, there is a risk of poor quality or even non-compliant materials winding up being incorporated into the final as-built product.
Because of this, Building Acts, codes and regulations will have to evolve. Inspection regimes and quality assurance components of the Building Code of Australia and the NZ building code will need to adapt and become more globally responsive. A good example is Singapore, which has moved away from British influences and bought its regulations into greater harmony with those in Europe.
The future is here. Builders, regulators and Building Acts, codes and regulations must keep pace with the changing environment so we can be ready.