The Box Hill Institute had a strong presence at Frame Australia’s 2019 Conference in Melbourne this week. Attended by over 240 delegates from Australia and overseas, the many presentations reinforced the need for Australia’s vocational and university education systems to pay attention to the rapid developments in off-site construction manufacturing and how this will reshape the need for new methods of work packaging and skills on-site.

Unless the Australia’s domestic capabilities are adapted to embrace modern construction methods the industry will be left behind.

The speaker line up for Frame Australia 2019 was very impressive. Standouts were the timber conversation now engaging with its concrete and steel counterparts. Presentations by the teams on the Ballarat GovHub project and extensions to 276 Flinders Street, Melbourne provided unique insights into how making and extending modern buildings happen in reality. An important insight was how the as-built designs of older buildings suddenly become very relevant. The builders and off-site manufacturers of these buildings pointed to the importance of designers of the future having deep design and materials integration skills.

Another important conversation centred on the issue of Intellectual Property (IP) ownership. This conversation had relevance to all regulators and certifiers. The question of such IP being deemed open-source when applied to a project is one for regulators. A case study was discussed where fire testing relating to a particular enterprise was commissioned and locked up as IP. An example of a project certification involving a mid-construction insolvency made access to some testing IP uncertain. The presenting certifier provided first-hand experience of navigating the process of dealing with relevant authorities and the challenges that arose.

Speaking about where the Australian Off-Site Construction Manufacture (OSCM) sector had reached in 2019 I argued that ‘The Australian construction industry needs to put more focus on industry skilling and enabling modern construction enterprise capability building, than on the hype given to modern construction tech over the last 20-years. This hype has distracted from the necessary education investment largely neglected at this critical time. It’s time to turn this around, otherwise more and more of Australia’s construction jobs will go off-shore.’

I believe It is not possible to deliver better, smarter, faster and more assured construction without the necessary capabilities and that Australia needs a massive new technical skill investment to meet the demand for qualified modern industry professionals. The industry is looking for a strong practical workforce who understand new developments in construction materials and composite construction involving timber, steel and concrete with an increasing focus on less waste, better quality and lower carbon to make modern buildings. These capabilities will need to be backed up with design management, manufacturing and logistics skills to inform how a new industry typology will enable traditional on-site construction to become more assembly orientated. There is a huge capability gap in all these aspects.

Box Hill Institute have introduced the first of their new prefabricated building system courses.

The first course focuses on on-site installation of prefabricated timber construction and starts in July (Code: 22501VIC). It’s a 6-month course for Certificate Level III qualifications or equivalent experience. At the same time the college will commence offering a Diploma of Project Management for Prefabricated Building Systems-Timber (Code: 22502VIC). This Diploma will be delivered over 1-year to students who have the language, literacy and numeracy skills that are equivalent to level 3 of the ACSF standards as well as having prior qualifications in Certificate III Carpentry or the Carpentry and Joinery qualifications.

I presented a table of four possible mixes of construction typologies that may define how construction on and off-site could unfold in Australia by 2030. Unless there is clear progress towards the creation of new capabilities that our industry will require by 2023, the only choice for construction clients to access smarter construction done better, will be to increasingly source off-shore. I am very enthusiastic about the new courses being offered at the Box Hill Institute as these will be an important step in helping to close the current gap in capabilities shown in the table below. I also posed the need to understand the differences in what I call Aussie-OSCM and Euro/US-OSCM. Our market scales, structures and geographies are very different. Australia has small markets and enterprises all some way apart.

Several questions were asked by the vocational educators at the conference about the type of skills that will be necessary and the numbers of modern construction ready workers that will be needed. I suggested that in future, ‘the most sought-after construction professionals including architects, engineers, certifiers and constructors will have achieved technical qualifications and industry experience before going onto do degree courses.’ I believe that the sandpit collaborations that will occur at Institute’s like Box Hill will be essential to prepare future construction professionals for what lies ahead. This is often the case in Europe.

Over the last 3-years, Western Sydney University has established the Centre for Smart Modern Construction. The Centre has invested in new greenfield research into the important themes that will define a modern industry. This research is focused on how the management of modern construction enterprises and projects will occur and how the digital economy will redefine the way construction is transacted and becomes more assured. It is essential that new evidence-based research is directly applicable in the industry within 3 to 5-years and becomes a prerequisite of modern construction learning. The alternate is opinion or the promotional hype of vendors who have a new tech offering every week. These must not be the definers of well informed and critical capabilities as a modern industry unfolds.

Another aspect of success for timber-OSCM discussed at the conference was the level of pre-competitive collaboration that should occur amongst the sector’s major players as they try to out compete each other, without there being a base line of new common endeavours. For example, I estimated that less than 2-percent of builder designs used in the residential sector today are OSCM ready. This will require a sector led response as one out, ‘winner-take-all-plays’ by individual players will fail to achieve an industry wide uptake of OSCM. Another area where pre-competitive collaboration could benefit all, would be the development of model contracts that could be used by timber-OSCM customers to plan and organise their project procurement activities to better align with the new delivery options.

Delegates discussed the challenges of scaling the skilling and capacity building effort that would be needed to enable an Aussie-OSCM timber sector. I pointed to the growing low-rise multi-unit (2 to 5 levels) market as being central to this endeavour. I reported that dwelling completions in this sector may reach 120,000 annually by 2025. The residential sector has always played an important role in helping to develop the grounding that so many successful constructors have recognised as the foundation of their careers that followed. In response to questions about the skill profiles and the numbers of modern construction ready builders that would be needed, I suggested that a target 40-percent penetration rate for timber-OSCM in the Australian housing market by 2030 should become the benchmark.

This requires breaking the numbers down by considering the types of skills, the enterprises and work teams that could be needed. I estimated that for every 10,000 multi-unit dwelling completions each year, up to 225 modern construction able enterprises could be needed. Those enterprises would need to have the skills described in the table shown here and have made the transition to organise work packaging on and off-site to feed into a sequence of orderly, mostly assembly orientated, self-managing and certifying on-site work teams or tasks.

The main distinction in achieving this would be that construction design, planning and performance would need to shift from a focus on traditional trades-based fabrication on-site, usually relying on up to 30 different trades. That shift would typically be to fewer than 10 multi-skilled on-site assembly teams.  Those work packages or teams may involve;

  • A sub-structure where a single team undertook all of the on-site works prior to the main build including; excavation, in-ground services, basement concrete and sealing
  • A super-structure team involving erecting the structure, enclosure, roofing, pre-fixed windows and doors all the way to lock up and waterproof
  • The first phase of building fit-out such as inter-dwelling walls and services reticulation
  • The second fit-out phase involving dwelling internal arrangements and finishes
  • Specialist custom fit-out to meet client specific needs i.e for ageing occupants
  • External works, landscaping and access

The adoption of construction work in this way will help re-define how constructor on-site overheads can be better deployed; attending to the off-site procurement, sequencing and quality assurance. An important feature of this approach is the blending of mass-fabrication and mass-customisation for future buildings to better meet individual client preferences.

Embracing these changes and preparing a modern construction workforce to be future ready would see the need for over 25,000 modern industry practitioners to be trained by 2030 for the timber-OSCM sector alone. This need is not a capability building challenge that can be put off. Unless measurable progress can be observed by 2023, Australia will see more and more these jobs go off-shore to address any skills shortfall. These estimates indicate that there may need to be some 1,125 teams of assembly able workers for every 10,000 dwellings to be performed using timber-OSCM. Multi-skilled teams of 4 or 5 workers would be typical.

Based on these numbers I estimate that over 5000 newly skilled constructors will be needed by 2025. If the timber industry wants to set a 40-percent market penetration rate by 2030, then this will require over 25,000 OSCM ready constructors. However, timber OSCM market segment is just the tip of a whole industry that will need to be brought along on a similar transformation journey. The capability building task here is much larger. Australia’s construction workforce is over 1,000,000, the second largest in the economy. I expect at least a third of this workforce will need to be OSCM skilled or reskilled over the same timeframe.

The challenge for industry, government, regulators and educators is that preparing a modern construction workforce involving over 300,000 a newly trained or up-skilled workforce is a +10-year project. The foundation will need to be a massive re-investment in the nation’s vocational education platform. The Box Hill Institute is a step in the right direction, but it is a step. The momentum needs to build. This will require commonwealth leadership to rationalise how an efficient shared strategy is put in place to prioritize the delivery of high-quality technical education as the foundation the industry will need. This requires re-imagination of traditional trades and professional courses to align with modern practice.