A Low Carbon Solution to the Affordable Housing Issue 5

Thursday, March 31st, 2016
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As the debate rages about home affordability and housing supply, the modular or pre-fabricated building business is on the rise, and has the potential to provide solutions to these issues.

Recently tagged as an expanding Australian industry that had the potential to embrace workers of the depleting automobile manufacturing industry, modular building manufacturing can provide budget friendly homes that are energy efficient and cost effective to run.

The cost savings come from the fact that modular buildings can be erected 30 to 40 per cent faster than conventional buildings because they are predominantly constructed in the factory, under cover and in one place, ready for assembly or installation on site. Modular construction offers standardised buildings that can potentially be of higher quality than traditional buildings because the work is easier to monitor than on a construction site.

Also, because they are fabricated under cover, the work is not hampered by weather limitations.  The construction of modular buildings also results in less material waste and carbon emissions. As the building industry is one of the largest industry carbon polluters, these benefits will significantly help reduce this carbon footprint.

Unlike our Asian neighbour Japan – where the majority of buildings constructed are prefab – at the moment only three per cent of Australia’s building industry is embracing off-site construction, so there is still a long way to go. But as colleagues explain in the video below, a significant opportunity exists to develop the industry in a bid to provide affordable homes to the community.

I also agree it is a good idea to transfer the skills of auto industry manufacturing workers to modular building manufacture. As well as providing jobs to workers who have lost them, this can help grow competition with the increasing level of manufactured building importations into Australia from places like Thailand. It is estimated that the current $90-plus billion global industry should grow in Australia by 20 per cent by 2020, and we need to be more competitive to achieve this.

Modular buildings are nothing new. They have been around for a couple of centuries with the first in Australia built by Henry Manning in the 1800s and known as the Manning Cottage. The house was built in Britain and shipped to Australia for assembly. An example of such a house is The Friends Meeting House in Adelaide. These types of prefabricated buildings were also used during war time, the Gold Rush in the United States and at other times when immediate accommodation was required for people who had lost homes or needed to be rehoused quickly in a new area. The current refugee and migrant crises in Europe will no doubt see this industry grow further.

Modular buildings can also be adapted to suit the climate of the location and the surrounding environment. Recent research in Australia shows that modular building design and fittings can be adapted to suit a particular climate, to improve energy efficiency and reach a desired star rating – which must be 6 stars or over to meet current Australian thermal performance standards. The researchers made significant improvements to a current modular design to improve thermal performance through shading, glazing and insulation before considering extras such as solar and other low carbon technologies.

The research focussed on an initial design by modular housing manufacturer Nova Deko with the aim of developing design solutions for Sustainable and Affordable Living through Modular, Net Zero Energy, Transportable and Self-Reliant Homes and Communities (CRC for Low Carbon Living 2014).

The study commenced in Brisbane and looked at the ‘Samara Pod’ design, which has a simple rectangular floor plan and lightweight steel framing in a 40-foot wide shipping container size. It can be shipped to any site with minimum assembly requirements. The simulation system used to judge the initial design was AccuRate Sustainability, and before changes were made, it produced a star rating of 5.1. However, once minor modifications were made to the internal layout and with better integration of services and improvements to the building facade, the building eventually achieved a rating of 7.6 stars.

This second design was then taken to various locations across Australia, where tweaks were made to design of shading, glazing and insulation to achieve the maximum result in each orientation. In Sydney, researchers achieved 7.9 stars following these tweaks and optimising design to suit the property location. Such tweaking achieved a rating of 7.7 stars in Melbourne, 7.6 in Hobart and 7.2 in Darwin. Once all the lessons from these ‘optimisations’ in each climate were put together, a final design was created and tested. The top two star ratings were 8.6 and 8.3 for north facing buildings based in Brisbane and Sydney.

This research demonstrated how integrative design solutions that are modular in nature can help achieve a high level of standardisation for manufacturing efficiency, while at the same time offering a high level of customisation in response to different climatic and orientation circumstances.

The lead researcher of this project, Malay Dave, said it was important to approach modular building design not as a one-off building design but as a system design.

“A clever approach that employs whole systems thinking in design can solve multiple problems at once. This is exactly what we did in this research and we were able to generate integrative design solutions that were modular in nature; they helped achieve high level of standardisation for manufacturing efficiency at the same time offering high level of customisation in response to different climatic and orientation circumstances,” he said.

Ultimately, current research shows that not only are modular designs easy to manufacture and transport, they can provide some excellent energy efficiencies to occupants and ultimately to society by reducing carbon output. The next phase of this research will look at how the integration of services and low carbon technologies can further increase star ratings and improve energy efficiency.

Overall, the modular building industry is on its way and will prove to be a viable option for those who want to own their own home but struggle with high prices, whilst providing solutions to housing shortages.  It’s a space I am keen to watch.

If this is a topic of interest because you are an expert, designer, manufacturer, supplier or simply an owner/occupant of any type of prefabricated or off-site manufactured building, you are invited to contribute to this research by taking part in this short survey.

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  1. Barry B

    Modulars all well and good but no panacea – existing solutions still aren't sturdy enough for use with anything larger than mid-rise buildings.

  2. Andrew

    I have no idea where you get your sources from but modular or pre-fabricated apart from a kit home is more expensive than any of the project homes now available in the market. It's not just the shell, you need to transport, crane, etc… that all adds up. I am currently looking at building and was disappointed with all the hype of modular/pre-fabricated. Lets just wait for 3D printed houses, then prices might change.

  3. Jane Bringolf

    Modular is fine if it does lower the cost, but can these designs incorporate the Livable Housing Design Guidelines as supported by the big players (Stockland, Lend Lease, HIA etc)? These features are supposed to be in all new housing by 2020.

  4. Swarup Dutta

    Dr Prasad,
    I am keen to discuss a prefab modular farm house which is currently at design stage. The farmhouse architecture comprises of three pavilions based on a 3.6×3.6m module. The first pavilion is a three bedroom home for the owners. The second is the living zone while the third houses ten bed n breakfast guests. The site is 110acres but the rural zoning disallows any subdivision. The land is off grid and relies on water harvesting and septic tank. There are opportunities for geothermal heating cooling plus the roof faces north where a battery of solar panels are mounted.
    I look forward to an opportunity to collaborate.

    Swarup Dutta

  5. Maurice

    Modular and prefab is slowly becoming a dated industry. A lot of modular prefab is just regular building methods done in a large warehouse and transported to the site. One way to reduce costs is mass production, but then everyone is stuck with the same house, and nobody wants that.

    Mass production has progressed a long way from this. A totally new industry is set to take the world by storm through digital based mass customisation, mixing mass production techniques with a fully customisable product.

    This new digitally-designed component-based construction (DDCBC) is slowly gaining traction, as described in the publication “Mass Customisation and Personalisation in Architecture and Construction”, by Poorang A.E. Piroozfar and Frank T Piller. So what exactly is DDCBC and what does it look like? DDCBC uses specially designed, mass produced components that fit together like a Lego or Meccano set. Architects and designers can design what they wish, while benefiting from greater advantages than modular or prefab.

    Component based housing, in its elementary form, is a very affordable solution. People with a limited budget could design a small home with only a master bedroom with ensuite and a small kitchen and dining/living room. As finances become available, this house could transition to a larger or more elaborate structure quickly, and can be disassembled and easily reassembled with any new components within a matter of days. Current day methods of renovation can often take months creating a lot of stress and a lot of waste.

    Digitally mass produced components-based building will be “the disruptive technology” of the housing industry.