Upon proudly opening its Forté apartment complex in 2012, construction giant Lend Lease proudly proclaimed that “it is only a matter of time before everyone is building like this.”
Although Lend Lease's comment largely referred to the environmental qualities of the cross laminated timber used in the building’s construction, the company also insisted that the building method employed – whereby the panels were pre-cut off-site and subsequently assembled on site – shaved four months off build times and delivered a simpler, cleaner and safer site.
That, proponents of off-site manufacturing or prefabrication say, represents where the industry in Australia should be headed – materials being pre-cut in a controlled factory environment and simply assembled on-site in a safe, clean and productive way with greater precision, fewer errors and less waste.
Fast forward to 2015, however, and ideas about everyone building this way remain a long way off. In the residential sector, for example, prefabAUS managing director Warren McGregor said prefabrication accounts for only around three per cent of the current marketplace.
So what are the benefits of prefabrication, what is holding it back and should it be the rule rather than the exception?
With respect to the last question, University of Newcastle Conjoint Professor John Smoulders FAIB NBPR-1 says it should. While stressing that prefabrication will only work in buildings which are designed to be built that way and where builders are prepared and equipped to build using pre-cut materials, Smoulders says having materials cut to measurement off site means fewer on-site workers are required and construction can take place in a clearer and safer environment.
“You reduce your labour force on-site, you manufacture in a controlled factory environment – not the situation where you have got guys walking everywhere, inclement weather and site access, all the extra cribbing that you need to cater for the site crew, all the OH&S that is so strict on a construction site and all this sort of stuff,” he said.
“It just makes so much more sense.”
Renowned construction guru and former CEO of Fletcher Construction Group’s Australian, New Zealand, Pacific and North American operations David Chandler OAM is more cautious. While in theory, off-site processes should be less costly compared with traditional on-site construction, Chandler says, questions about whether or not prefab is indeed less expensive are not straightforward and depend upon the benchmarks used.
With regard to prefabricated steel, for example, Chandler is not aware of any independent research which conclusively demonstrates that the end cost to the client was less expensive using this form of construction overall, and adds that since prefabricated steel has to be lifted into place using cranes, it will only be less expensive when accompanied by efficient on-site handling and crane use.
“As for prefab generally, I think some modular initiatives in Australia over the last five to seven years have been driven by the mining hut industry looking for a new market when the mining boom stopped,” Chandler said.
"So there have been sorties into school buildings, student accommodation and a bit of aged care. These are institutional buildings, not privately owned dwellings, albeit there has been a bit of penetration into the (private dwelling) space by a few companies. I do not see a long-term future in this space.”
Opinions vary on the factors holding prefabrication back. In a recent interview, McGregor said the sector was largely being held back by traditional associations linking modular building with bland design. He added that prefab – which requires an early and more detailed ‘lock down’ than would be the case for traditional construction – would require a change of mindset amongst a range of players including not just contractors but clients, architects, consultants, project managers and suppliers.
Smoulders, meanwhile, puts the blame largely down to a sentiment of apathy among builders, many of whom did not know how to handle or were unwilling to adapt to new methods and ways. Building, he said, was an ‘old, old industry’ with many adopting an old school mentality and taking the pathway involving least resistance and most familiarity. Strong union influences, too, have made changes to simplifying construction processes difficult, Smoulders said.
Chandler, meanwhile, talks about what he sees as a lack of compelling business plans in the sector which articulate how prefab will work, how different parts will work together as a whole system and how customers will be able to have confidence in on-time delivery. He says claims about prefab being faster need to be tested against credible benchmarks, and worries that the relatively ‘young’ nature of the off-site sector – along with the fact that building codes are failing to keep pace – could raise concerns about quality issues as poor practices on the part of one or two individual suppliers could damage the reputation of the entire sector.
Smoulders feels resistance to more prefabrication is symbolic of broader issues within the sector, the nature of which means we are prepared to tolerate outdated and inefficient practices. He feels top tier builders like Lend Lease, Multiplex and Hansen Yuncken are prepared to embrace change.
“If you do a trip to Europe, the bricklayers, the plasterers – all their sand and cement is mixed in a silo, the silo is delivered put it in a wheelbarrow, press a few buttons, and you have a perfect mix whether it be render, whether it be mortar, or cementitious slurry,” Smoulders said. “They press the button and they get it there and they only use what needs to be used with no waste – none whatsoever.
“What happens in this country, a three tonne truck comes on the job, dumps it on the ground. You might you one and a half tonnes - two tonnes if you are lucky, the other tonne is wasted on the floor. Then another truck comes, then another truck comes and another truck comes, dump it on the floor, dump it on the floor.
“We are still doing that. We have a lot to learn. We have a lot to embrace.
“The builders today have to learn to migrate to a better culture so they can keep up pace with the rest of the world.”