Why is the Industry Slow to Take Up Off-Site Construction? 4

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
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It is easy to view prefabrication and off-site construction as an exciting and rapidly advancing area.

We can see YouTube videos of high rise apartment buildings being erected on site in just a few days. We hear about multi-storey school buildings being installed over the Christmas holidays to avoid a year or so of disruption. There is already a choice of manufacturers of fully finished homes around Australia offering an increased array of designs as well as bespoke luxury homes delivered pretty much anywhere in the country. And there are student accommodation complexes, bathroom pods for apartment buildings, and even self contained office pods ready to be lowered into our back yards.

All this excitement and activity seems unsurprising given the many and oft-cited advantages of prefabrication, which include reduced construction periods, reduced materials waste, reduced clean up, an improved OH&S environment, less disruption at the project site and for neighbours, potential to incorporate advanced materials (such as pre-finished surfaces that would otherwise be finished on-site), improved quality and associated reduced defects rectification from manufacturing-style processes, and the convergence of the ‘as built’ project with the ‘as designed’ documentation.

On closer inspection, however, we find that despite the advances being made in off-site construction and the heightened coverage of prefab projects, the reality is that prefabrication is thought to account for less than three per cent of the overall construction industry around the world. Australia looks to be no different. That means that meaningful take-up has hardly even begun.

What are we waiting for?

For starters, innovation often encounters obstacles to its wider take-up, especially until it reaches a critical mass of acceptance. I am reminded of the perhaps apocryphal response attributed to the US President of the day, Ulysses S. Grant, to the newly invented telephone. He apparently thought it “very remarkable” but wondered “who in the world would ever want to use one of them.”

Prefabrication and off-site manufacturing represent a new dimension to the well-established construction industry. It is to be expected that there will be barriers to contend with. Making changes to familiar methods requires effort. It can involve trials as well as investment in training and modified processes, which makes reluctance to embrace change almost a given.

Because of this, those of us believing in a big bright future for Australia’s off-site construction are obliged to set out how this reluctance is going to be overcome.

Here are five potentially powerful enablers of more widespread adoption of prefabrication:

  1. Complementary technologies, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM); 3D Immersion capability, virtually engineering, and Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA). The latter two are mandatory in the automotive and aerospace industries.
  2. Commitments by large contractors to trial the incorporation of prefabrication and pre-assembled structural components. This is happening already with encouraging results. Australand’s project ‘The Green’ in Parkville Victoria is an example, as is Lend Lease with bathroom pods and Hutchinson Builders investing in their own prefabrication factories.
  3. Major client organisations are in a powerful position to focus the thinking of the project team on opportunities for superior project outcomes through off-site construction and how to ensure that they are achieved. Serial developers and institutional owners of property assets are ideal candidates.
  4. Government agencies can exert similar influence as a major client (the US Department of Justice was the prime mover in the take-up of BIM in the US by mandating that BIM be used on its projects. As a result, architects, consultants, project managers, contractors and subcontractors were moved to get on board with BIM. More specifically, the UK government has committed GBP22m to a prefabrication industry program being managed by Laing O’Rourke. This program has been designed to address the high cost of housing and the inadequate rates of construction. It is noteworthy that similar housing issues exist also in Australia. We are already seeing some government agencies trialling prefabrication on their projects, including Police NSW and the NSW education department. More generally, government procurement policies formulated around traditional on-site construction procurement and contracting arrangements can inadvertently preclude prefabrication elements that would enhance project outcomes.
  5. Modified contracting methodologies like Integrated Project Delivery – which emphasises a more collaborative client-contractor approach – can help by creating an environment more conducive to exploring ways to improve processes and outcomes, rather than snuffing out that kind of exploration and reverting to the usual ways.

It is encouraging then that we are moving in the right direction on almost all fronts.

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  1. Grant Spork

    Gaining acceptance for new methodologies and materials: An example is Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete external panelling. Developed in the UK initially by a UK research body, and gained acceptance in the US, Japan and Europe. Some innovation was undertaken in Australia. There are now large manufacturing plants in the UAE and Asia, no large dedicated facility in Australia . What happened in Australia to the last large application? The developer was threatened with litigation. Those prefabricated, systematised GFRC applications are now over 25 years installed with no technical flaws. GFRC panels don't burn, are designed to resist earthquake and high winds, and have a long history of successful application worldwide. Lightweight Panel and Prefabricated systems face many hidden obstacles to general acceptance in the construction industry. As one government agency said, "We can't use that system or material until we have used it for ten years without a glitch!" A catch 22 for innovative materials and systems. Meanwhile some defective systems will be extremely costly to remedy as instanced in the case of plastic core filled aluminium faced flammable panelling.

    • Warren McGregor

      Thanks Grant. That's a good illustration of the kind of practical challenges that need to be worked through. Test cases, accompanied by rigorous monitoring that can be relied upon subsequently could help in this regard, but the cost, practical arrangements and extended timeframes involved are definitely drawbacks to such an approach.

  2. Malay Dave

    Thanks, Warren, for a very informative article. I believe there is a strong role for the design industry to play in this too. Designers and in particular architects have yet to fully embrace the fact that design led innovation in this field can contribute significantly in achieving both sustainability and affordability in prefab. My current PhD research is looking at that particular equation.

    • Warren McGregor

      You've picked a great PhD topic Malay, I'm keen to see the results when they emerge!