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.