PrefabNZ has set a high bar for what it wants to achieve in the next five years.

PrefabNZ has been an ambitious enterprise from its start in April 2010. It’s been a collaboration in an industry not known for sharing its insights and leveraging shared know-how. One should not be surprised that this has occurred under the capable leadership of former NZ Snowboard Olympian Pamela Bell. PrefabNZ has been an exercise in bringing the conversation and merits of smarter and faster ways of building to New Zealand’s public.

The New Zealand construction industry is unique. Its scale is relatively small, running at $16.57 billion in 2015 in comparison with Victoria’s $21.6 billion. New Zealand’s construction sector is currently buoyed by an estimated $16.5 billion spend associated with the Christchurch rebuild following the mammoth earthquake there in February 2011. The earthquake affected over 100,000 homes and over half of the buildings in the central building district, most of which required demolition.

The New Zealand construction industry has benefited from this massive recovery expenditure, but that may only last for another two or three years. The uniqueness of the New Zealand construction industry is its ability to drive innovation off a small economic and resource base. The use of timber and off-site fabrication are examples.

CoLab16 left those who attended in no doubt of PrefabNZ’s aspirations for the future. The speakers were drawn from a range of disciplines and experiences. There were a number of themes that became apparent, but perhaps the most profound conclusion I drew was that construction businesses of the future could become more like client-facing technology companies than may have been previously imagined. Four of the speakers stood out for me.

Frances Valintine of MindLab gave a mind-bending insight into the future and how this might play out for the construction industry. Valintine spoke to trends across all industries where companies preparing for the future are embedding software inside their products and starting to act more like software companies. These embedded software applications are a driver to track and analyse manufacturing, distribution and marketing costs while increasing product innovation. MindLab estimates that only one per cent of things that could have an IP address today have one. They say that 99 per cent of the world is ‘still asleep.’ It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the rest of the world wakes up.

But get this: the original internet addressing system is called ‘Internet protocol, Version 4’ (IPv4). By employing 32 bits of recombined digits. IPV4 had a maximum of 4.3 billion possible addresses. Internet protocol Version 6 (IPV6) is currently being rolled out across the globe. IPV6 uses 128 bits, creating, 3.4 x 10^38 possible addresses (that is a ‘trillion-trillion-trillion’) or a ‘undecillion’ which is an obscure term for an impossibly large number. MindLab runs summer schools for kids that teach insights into the future and skills such as digital coding.

Scott Hedges of Lindbacks gave the Keynote address. Lindbacks is Sweden’s leader in industrialized construction of apartment buildings. Using modern technology, the company develops and builds healthy homes indoors, and then assembles them quickly and safely on the site for a fixed price. Lindbacks produces different kinds of multi-unit buildings, including rental apartments, affordable tenant owned units, student apartments, retirement homes, senior living for those 55 years of age and up, and sheltered housing. Hedges explained how this client-facing industrialized construction business has moved from being a downstream timber merchant to an upstream single point builder of turnkey multi-unit projects direct to end customers.

Lindbacks uses a suite of proven standardized design and manufacturing disciplines which enable both mass fabrication and mass customization. The company’s multi-unit projects display simple but high quality customizations that respond effortlessly to both urban place-making and their customer preferences. Hedges stressed that for this model to succeed “you need to build a business before you build a factory.” That was his key message to CoLab16.

Each week, Lindbacks delivers and completes 1,200 square metres of turnkey finished apartments, (about 20 apartment units), and the company is quickly expanding. A new production plant will enable Lindbacks to triple output. They have 250 workers, and anticipate employing about 400 when their new factory opens in 2017/2018. Impressively, Lindbacks commits two per cent of gross revenue to university R&D collaborations.

Beth Cameron, principal at Makers of Architecture, presented another example of the types of customer facing enterprises that are redefining the modern construction industry. Makers of Architecture combine the designer and constructor roles to maintain control over the making of buildings for their customers. Cameron told Colab16 that “engaging with the latest technologies allows us to be innovative and accurate in our working, planning, budgeting, timing and construction methods. We truly believe the design and building process has many areas to be challenged and improved.”

Both Lindbacks and the Makers of Architecture are timber-driven businesses. Both commit to the principles of less time, less cost, less stress, less waste and less environmental impact. Makers of Architecture aspire to provide architectural solutions that are individually customized and flexible. Their business model is more suited to the New Zealand market. Lindbacks on the other hand pursues these aspirations on an industrial and global scale. They both display the diversity of client facing, technology driven enterprises of the future.

PrefabNZ’s members look to presentations such as these to consider ways prefab may play a bigger role in helping to address New Zealand’s chronic affordable housing challenges.

Julian Watt of Jasmax’s Wellington office has extensive experience in large scale, multi-faceted projects. Julian spent seven years working in the United Kingdom, where he led the architectural team, from inception to completion, on the new £650 million satellite pier T2B, at Heathrow Airport. The project was the largest and most complex project that Julian’s then-employer, Grimshaw Architects, had ever undertaken. His strong commercial understanding of cost and value received praise from D&C contractor Balfour Beatty.

This project was a centerpiece of CoLab16 case studies into modern construction. T2B was 520 metres long and varied between 36 and 43 metres wide. Grimshaw and Balfour Beatty both knew they had a savvy client from the start. The project had high airside security challenges and the client wanted T2B built 10 per cent cheaper and 25 per cent faster than similar projects. It forced a great collaboration.

The design and construct approach adopted the principles of a regular structure, incorporating services and skin. The project optimized off-site by the use of a kit of parts deploying standard elements and the use of the structure as a permanent safety work platform. They tackled early supply chain buy-in, component sequencing, interface resolution and quality assurance as a continuous process. The use of an industrial shell and soft shed interior provided a narrative for the project that was communicable and achievable.

The T2B delivery model makes sense. It has parallels with Lindbacks’ industrialised building method. The integration of technologies with regular components and work sequences was the key to both achieving similar quality outcomes. I think Hedges’ earlier message that you need to build a business before you build a factory rang true here. Both the T2B construction methodology and the Lindbacks industrialised building model compliment PrefabNZ’s mission to bring the merits of smarter and faster ways of building to New Zealand’s public. These were the common themes in other presentations and site visits.

In all, this type of conference demonstrates the benefits of genuine industry leadership, collaboration and a commitment to strategic innovation. I am not sure that the same level of enduring momentum can ever be replicated by the for-profit conferencing market who look for industry themes that they may exploit and marketing platforms for those who may have less to offer than well selected speakers and content than CoLab16. What’s clear is that the rate of transformation now driving construction’s future will come from many sources. It would be unwise for any constructor not to get ahead of this momentum and embrace a modern construction future in a digitised, industrialised and global market place.