The recent WoodSolutions workshops on tall timber buildings were a powerful indicator of just how fast and how far the transformation of construction is going in Australia and globally.

There were some impressive presentations and in their own way, each showed evidence of these changes. The big distinction in these presentations was that they were not just vendor self-proclamations of their achievements. This time we heard of independent measures.

The first of these presentations was from Professor Perry Forsythe, who spoke of work commissioned by Forrest Wood Products Australia. Forsythe’s research involved investigating panelised prefabricated timber construction performance as a fast and productive site installation process. Amongst his conclusions, he discussed how certain elements such as crane time impacted the speed of installation, central to optimising productivity. In short, it was a primer on how to design and manage for assembly on-site.

Forsythe’s presentation and those that followed each brought their own insights into the accelerating changes in construction’s transformation, albeit through a wood-centric lens. The presentations highlighted that construction clients and their advisors are now taking measurably smarter, better, faster, safer and less expensive construction more seriously. Furthermore, they showed how the timber industry is leaping past its slower counterparts in response to changing customer demands for better buildings and a lower carbon world.

The centrepiece presentations at the workshop involved two architects and a quantity surveyor. Russell Acton’s firm Acton Ostry Architects led the design of the 18-storey Brocks Commons student accommodation building for the University of British Columbia. BVN are the architects for stage two of Our Lady of Assumption School – Strathfield NSW. MBM Quantity Surveyors are recognised by their clients for expertise across multiple disciplines, market segments and industries ranging from small to multi-billion projects.

On both the Brocks Commons and Our Lady of Assumption School, the clients wanted to pursue buildings that were not only effective solutions to their needs, but ones that embraced sustainable design and build practices while offering their students more attractive spaces to live, learn and play than their traditional counterparts. But, in the end, these buildings had to demonstrate financial and long-term ownership viability, benchmarked against traditional construction. Informed clients asserting new ideals.

Lines between designers and constructors are becoming blurred. The leading architects these days take a whole of procurement approach as they pursue better buildings and become directly engaged in how to deliver them. Modern constructors take the lead in translating great design into smart build. The presentations by Russell Acton and BVN’s Knut Menden are worth tracking down. It’s unusual for designers to demonstrate such a comprehensive knowledge and ownership of supply chain organisation, manufacture, costs, assembly and building resilience in addition to being great designers. Menden is from Germany, and said that unless you had these skills these days in Europe, you would be unemployable.

MBM’s Richard Smith presented his findings on the cost comparisons of projects embracing industrialised building systems where off-site drove smarter, safer and effective on-site. Smith’s presentation was naturally timber-centric. It took Forsythe’s research into the bigger picture where dramatic reduction in on-site durations, shifting unproductive fabrications and on-site overheads off-site, when combined with strategic reductions in on-site waste generation and worker injury rates translated into lower construction costs.

Already these buildings were showing upwards of five and seven per cent savings for higher quality assured construction.

“I’m working with timber on a number of projects and the results are unarguable,” Smith said. “We have prepared full estimate reports for the residential and commercial towers included in my presentation. TDA will be issuing our work in the next month or so.”

So, why is the notion of DfA displacing CPM a realistic proposition? These conversations have their roots in history. In the book The Anatomy of Major Projects, authors Peter Morris and George H. Hough submitted that “project management was defined as involving the application of a collection of tools and techniques such as CPM, to direct the use of diverse resources towards the accomplishment of unique, complex, one-time tasks within time, cost and quality constraints.”

CPM is a process driven project delivery model embedded in the logic that every project is different. DfA on the other hand is a purposeful endeavour, focused on the quantifiable outputs needed in a transforming industry. In this context, DfA is more like the approach Morris and Hough attributed to the enterprise driven product development programs used in the chemical industry.

A more current discussion on the need to take a more joined up approach to construction is presented in the 2016 Farmer Report on UK Construction, Modernise or Die. In his opening comments, researcher Mark Farmer said “A natural consequence of fragmentation is that those tiers of the industry closest to clients or indeed forming parts of clients’ organisations themselves have effectively become process managers for a wider cascaded supply chain rather than having direct delivery control by employing their own workforce.” Most would agree with this view.

Farmer offers a confronting and no holds barred analysis of the UK construction industry which looks at why previous attempts to modernise the industry have failed and what now needs to be done. Perhaps Farmer’s most confronting observation was:

The (industry’s) fragmentation and lack of joined up thinking: is exemplified by the separate series of initiatives the industry has been forced to launch in partnership with individual trade and representative bodies. Although they are all trying to create better outcomes, the fact that they are being led by fragmented coalitions is not conducive to single point ownership of modernisation across a supply chain that is many instances shared between house building and general contracting.”

This view would apply to the Australian construction industry.

These themes were echoed by local constructor and fabricator Adam Strong of StrongBuild and Meyer Timber’s, Timber Building Systems general manager George Konstandakos. They are leaders in breaking the mould of fragmentation described by Farmer. Both spoke of the transference of advanced manufacturing techniques into construction, but cited the importance of on-site logistics and assembly workflows (DfA) to achieve the full productivity improvements that Professor Forsythe identified in his research.

TDA chief executive Andrew Dunn has been amongst the leaders in moving the timber-in-construction narrative forward. Dunn is an authoritative subject expert who relies on evidence based case studies in the often-contested debates about timber versus concrete and steel. While he is passionate about timber products, he is agnostic about how systemic construction transformation plays out as the industry embraces smarter and better. He calls for an industry widening of enterprises taking up modern construction methods on, and off-site. He sees industry-wide enterprise capability building and improved competitiveness as fundamental to locking in a construction client enthusiasm, for smarter construction converging with smart buildings in tomorrow’s digital customer facing world.

Dunn’s views are not unlike those presented in Modernise or Die.

“It is important to clarify that I do not want to create a divisive binary future industry where innovators or early adopters at the vanguard of change leave the laggards in isolation,” Farmer wrote. “This is about creating a vibrant, re-skilled, fully integrated, more predictable and productive industry such that traditional working and new approaches can co-exist and complement each other, driving much wider longer-term benefit.”

There are mega forces that are now reshaping the global construction future. To put this in an Australian context, Australia’s construction turnover now represents about two per cent of global construction activity, and in future this probably means that 98 per cent of construction jobs will be elsewhere.

There is a global momentum in timber construction interest and its potential to contribute to a lower carbon sustainable future. There is global interest in off-site manufacture (OSM). It would be churlish not to acknowledge the efforts by all contributors to the fabric of modern buildings to source and make more sustainable construction pieces and parts.

In Australia, industry-led momentum to drive independently measurable lower cost, lower emission and assured construction outcomes is generally weak, other than those efforts seemingly driven by the timber industry.  Another development is the recent changes to Australian building standards to incorporate timber solutions in medium rise buildings.

Coincidentally, on February 21, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new ‘Technical standard for multi-storey and high-rise timber buildings (GB/T51226 – 2017)’. In line with a global push toward taller wood structures, the codes aim to broaden the scope and application of timber structures beyond the current three-storey limit. The new code allows wood structures up to five storeys. Moreover, on a case-to-case basis, structures up to 56 metres or 18 storeys may be approved for construction in the lowest seismically rated zone in China, subject to local authority approval and expert endorsement. The code officially takes effect on October 1, 2017. Concurrently, China is undertaking by far the world’s largest tree-planting project. Since 1978, 66 billion trees have been planted by Chinese citizens.

By the project’s end, planned for 2050, it is intended to stretch 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles) along the edges of China’s northern deserts, cover 405 million hectares (42 per cent of its territory) and increase the world’s forest cover by more than a tenth. Adopting this unconventional pollution mitigation measure on such a large scale is a bold move for the local government in Beijing. In time, this strategy has potential to displace some of China’s dependence on construction materials having higher CO2 emission levels. This is a citizen responsive plan.

China, North America, New Zealand and Europe seem to have complementary plans in the forested OSM and DfA world. These are trends not lost on a post-BREXIT Farmer. He observed that new foreign entrants in these fields, if meeting technical and quality standards, would indeed potentially be a much-needed boost to UK capacity. But reliance on foreign entrants would represent a lost opportunity for the UK to retain value added, including direct and indirect employment, IP development and potentially building an export base. There is convergence of all the themes suggested at the start of this article.

These trends will accelerate the OSM and DfA transformations already observable in the Australian construction industry. The extent these may have positive or negative implication domestically will rest on many factors. Central to that will be a serious read of the Farmer Report by everyone who has a stake in construction’s future.

Flowing on from that will be increasing the evidence available to construction clients that there’s a lot to be gained from tracking down those companies who can demonstrate independently measurable better, smarter, more cost effective and assured construction delivery performances. And perhaps if Farmer’s report can attract some interest from government and policy makers, a realisation that the OSM momentum ball is rolling faster with or without a national response.

For now, Australia’s timber industry looks to be leading the way by demonstrating what’s possible.