Boosting Timber Construction One Frame at a Time

Friday, July 10th, 2015
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It is a measure of the growing market for timber design and engineering that the Frame Australia conference this year doubled its delegate attendance from the design and construction sector on last year’s numbers.

Frame has traditionally been a conference for the engineered timber industry and focused on products of most relevance to detached housing construction. Frame 2015 however, illustrated the realisation of a gradual transition to an altogether different emphasis.

Responding to the increasing demand for timber design and building in the commercial construction market, with multi-storey apartment and office buildings now regularly breaking new barriers in both height and scale, the conference has successfully morphed into a forum for broad engagement on issues relating to large-scale timber design, procurement and delivery.

The greatly increased representation of design, specification and allied consulting professions was well catered for by the conference program. The heaviest hitters of Australian construction – Australand, Lend Lease and Grocon – were there to talk about their new timber projects and latest technologies being developed and utilised. The contrast of technological approach between Australand and Lend Lease was particularly interesting when comparing award winning timber projects from each.

On the one hand, Australand’s Robert Pradolin has taken the pathway of innovating within the established domestic timber supply chains to achieve remarkable time and cost savings on The Green project. Using a methodology built around the utilisation of commercial procurement disciplines and panellisation with factory prefabrication of structural components, Australand has pushed limits and successfully developed the tallest lightweight timber residential building in Australia. Having now tested their methodology over a number of Melbourne projects, the company’s internal project management and procurement processes have been honed to deal with the timber supply chain in Australia. This strategy has been successful enough for Pradolin to now be taking up a national role to propagate the system around the country.

As Andrew Nieland from Lend Lease demonstrated, however, his company chose to invest into massive timber technologies, utilising Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) on the Forte building in Melbourne’s Docklands. Lend Lease has also had to create procurement methodologies that cater for the import of CLT (there is as yet no CLT manufacturer in Australia), as well as developing the design disciplines to deal with the shop drawing and detailing required and the site management processes that enabled them to achieve a totally site incident-free build.

Consulting firms that are leading the way in design of timber multi-storey projects such as Fitzpatrick and Partners, Arup and Irwinconsult were well received as they discussed issues such as market barriers and resistance to the adoption of timber construction, showcased some of the remarkable results that can be achieved with the material and looked in depth at detailing and construction solutions to structure and fire engineering.

Whilst not strictly timber focused, the recent developments in factory built prefabrication were explored by Damian Crough, founding director of PrefabAUS. This organisation is an exemplar of how the adoption of new technology in an industry can lead to diversification such that new industry offshoots develop, to the point that an industry association becomes viable.

In this case, the union of technological development and the traditional onsite construction industry has spawned a vibrant offsite factory-built love child. Whilst the uninitiated may take this for granted, the development is remarkable for a number of reasons. The construction industry is not a fast paced early-adopter. Rather it is a lumbering slow mover when it comes to change. With its multiple layers of regulation, deeply embedded risk avoidance culture and stakeholder interrelationships that often seem like a stack of cards, it is a wonder that gestation to innovation happens at all. Nevertheless, Australia is now following a worldwide trend into commercial prefabrication that seems as unstoppable as it is revolutionary.

Robert de Brincat of Tilling Timber threw up an interesting challenge to the timber industry in his presentation. Echoing much of the recent academic research into barriers to greater adoption of timber construction, he spotlighted the industry’s Achilles heel – an entrenched supply side, rather than customer service focus.

In commercial construction, procurement imperatives dictate robust, if not bullet proof supply chains. Contractors depend on a service culture that supports them with professional, timely and cost effective documentation and expert advice. These attributes have for example been established in the steel industry over many years. However, timber supply is still largely a domestic affair, catering to the small builder and relying more for market access on established relationships rather than cutting edge performance. This is despite the unavoidable shift in Australian demand that will see the number of multi-storey residences overtake detached dwellings within the next 15 years as the major residential demand driver for building products.

Clearly, it is conferences such as Frame Australia that are key to building awareness of these and other challenges as well as allowing those in the vanguard of change to show the industry the way forward.

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