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.”

  • Building concepts in the way they are delivered will always and should be based on a proper and appropriate evaluation on the best methodology to be employed. There is no doubt that prefabricated and modular concepts will be one of the starring massive growth areas of manufacturing in the 21st century. The innovations and new technologies will be key driver of this and this is evident in the massive changes that have occurred in the past 10-15 years alone. With any transition there will be caution and the naysayers along the way. Prefabrication and modular construction methodology is not an if but a when proposition and its take up acceptance will continue unabated at levels the industries and regions will dictate. Exciting times ahead in these industries are assured.

  • Prefabrication works when you can use cheap labour in a cheap factory, and, you are manufacturing large number of each component. Australian planning and building is all about small individual developments. Do you trust the Chinese to build components?
    Timber roof trusses widely used not because they are a cheap answer every time, but the fact that labour has been disskilled and few carpenters know how to frame a roof quickly. Every building has trusses made to measure. They do manage to use cheap timber that would have gone into paper making or pallets.

    Various wall systems have appeared that can build even an apartment building in a flash, but who wants to pay a $1,000,000 for a few square metres made out of polysterene and cheap particleboard. Then again I have watched concrete panel systems fall apart ten minutes after a fire has started.

    Often prefabrication is all about changing the regulations so that lower standards are passable in very dangerous situations such as multi storey buildings. It does not make sense unless you have money to burn to go into apartment buying when for the same money you can get a house and land. Land does not burn. 100 year old discussion.

  • Great to see more support for prefab, just a pity a bit more time wasn't spent on getting the grammar and spelling right in the article!

  • Richard. You and I know transportable buildings Are effectively prefab construction. They have been around for the last 100 years.

    At the moment to transport a building on Australian roads you are looking at around $40,000 for a building of 200m2. Mostly of this is economies of scale related. Police escort is a ridiculous price. Getting close to half the total transport cost….

    The other big issue is to set up production line manufacturing there are heavy investment in factory space. Not many markets have the capacity to support a production line.

    The access factor is a massive issue. Its difficult to get a finished component into metro streets with parked cars power lines, trees and any other thing that decides to upset the transport. IE truck crash and dropping bark on the road( happened to us)

    The last factor is its still cheaper to build onsite compared to prefab. I could go into detail but I don't have the time.

    Richard an idea you gave me 12 years ago, which we have since developed may have a chance. It still requires some investment. You worked for us selling steel which may give you a clue who this is. I'll catch up with you soon.

  • I agree that more prefab modules & buildings have their place in construction. The inefficiencies / waste / quality issues mentioned can and should still be reduced / eliminated in the current approach to building construction. As stated building is an old profession and to eliminate an entire industry (site work vs off site work) before correcting the current problems appears counter-intuitive to me

  • How about those buildings with a lot of irregular shapes? Wont they be costly if prefab units are used?

  • Another question would be:- Why do we allow a building to be demolished when it has not lived out it's design life? Recently a law courts building has been demolished in Brisbane, presumably because the land has a high value and can be re-developed. However, the cost to the environment by my estimation was enormous as machinery worked to smash up the multistory concrete construction, consuming diesel fuel and emitting carbon dioxide along the way. This building was less than 50 years old and would have lasted at least another 50 years with less cost to the environment if it had been refurbished.

  • …& which Tower Cranes Matter may be your best investment! A couple of years ago an Architectural Company from Melbourne designed prefab modules for Darwin, where the developer/builder prebuilt modules (pods) with average weights of 22t to 28t at 32m radius. (Half a 2 bedroom apartment lift at a time .)
    This called for larger tower crane and the concept was to build a floor a week with prefab modules with 27 floors.