Australia Must Break Through Prefabrication Barriers

by Andrew Heaton

Ask many Aussies about prefabricated homes and they will conjure up images about substandard stock from the 80s or 90s noted for its lack of character.

They probably won’t think of Australia’s first carbon positive house or Lend Lease’s 10-storey Forte apartment complex in Melbourne.

For some time, there has been talk of a shift toward offsite manufacturing in Australian construction. A headline on Domain earlier this year suggested that prefabrication could account for one in 10 Australian homes within a decade.

Yet progress is slow. Whilst data is scarce, industry body prefabAUS estimates that prefabrication accounts for only three per cent of houses and apartments being constructed in Australia.

That raises questions about what is holding modular construction back.

Associate Professor Tuan Ngo, director of the Advanced Protective Technologies for Engineering Structure Group and research director of the ARC Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Prefabricated Housing at the University of Melbourne, says uptake of prefabrication is happening more slowly than expected.

To be sure, Ngo cautions that the above market share figure is understated as this takes into account only buildings where prefabrication accounts for most or all of the building’s construction. Include cases where prefabricated components were used on buildings primarily constructed using traditional framing methods and Ngo reckons prefab’s share is closer to 10 per cent – a proportion he says could stretch to 15 or 20 per cent within five years. As part of research he is conducting, Ngo and his team will be looking to obtain greater data and insight into the market share of prefabrication.

Nevertheless, he says Australia's prefab industry is relatively tiny. In Sweden, he says, prefab accounts for roughly 80 per cent of the market. In Japan, Germany, New Zealand and England, he says this figure is 20 to 25 per cent, 20 per cent, almost 20 per cent and around 10 per cent respectively.

Ngo says prefab offers numerous advantages. Compared with onsite fabrication, he says offsite manufacturing can be done faster, cheaper, more safely and more sustainably with less waste. At the moment, he says waste materials in construction stand at around 40 per cent. Were prefabrication to be used, he says this could be slashed to a fraction of that.

Nevertheless, he says several barriers exist. For now, he says Australia’s offsite manufacturing supply chain is fragmented and lacks depth, and is yet to reach the scale needed to deliver upon the full extent of potential cost savings. Across the industry, knowledge about how to deliver using prefabrication is limited. This is not just within the supply chain but also amongst builders and designers – especially lower and mid-tier players. Prefab also suffers from an association with bland modular houses churned out in past decades. On this score, Ngo says Australia is now seeing good prefabrication work, with architects creating interesting designs.

Going forward, Ngo says action is needed in several areas. More research is required and researchers need to communicate knowledge with builders and designers. Better marketing is needed to make prefab more attractive. As the automotive industry shuts down, skills coming out of this area could be used for prefab.

Dr Karen Manley, an Associate Professor of Construction Management at Queensland University of Technology, agrees that countries such as Sweden and Japan are in front of Australia. Having recently visited those two countries, Manley said their approaches toward prefabrication differ.

In Japan, where Manley says the industry is being driven by a combination of chemical giants and fear of earthquakes, massive factories pump out entire high-tech modules and complete homes, and have large co-located R&D facilities set up for visits from prospective home owners with different sub-buildings that demonstrate the superiority of their methods. One room enables people to compare the smell of volatile organic compounds with that of zero VOCs. Another has rocket-style seating for 12 people on an elevated platform. The lights are dimmed and a large growling rumble howls whilst the seats jostle to a high magnitude earthquake, demonstrating first-hand the benefits of factory level quality control and robust fastenings.

In Sweden, prefabricators tended to be smaller family businesses which focus largely on timber and have a lower level of prefabrication focused around structural insulated panels.

In Australia, Manley says barriers stem from several areas. Courtesy of bland portable housing constructed for mining areas, prefabrication has a poor image among many. More important, any mainstream shift toward industrialised housing would create widespread disruption throughout the sector’s supply chain and 1.1 million strong workforce. Having operated one way for decades, many builders are unwilling to experiment with new ways of working. Although offsite manufacturing can deliver lower energy costs, Manley says consumers may not attach as much value to this as they do to up-front cost savings.

Finally, whilst prefab’s business case is compelling, Manley says the industry is experiencing difficulty in demonstrating this through data. During a recent study, QUT found quantifiable data about prefab’s benefits to be thin on the ground apart from some coming out of Europe.

David Michel, managing director of Sydney-based bathroom, laundry and kitchen modules offsite manufacturer Bedrock Offsite Modular Solutions, says talk amongst the industry has shifted from prefabrication being an evolution to one of being a movement.

Nevertheless, he says Australia’s efforts are lagging. Whereas the United Kingdom has undertaken substantial actions following a review conducted last year by quantity surveyor Mark Farmer and Singapore has adopted bold policy initiatives, the Australian Government has been absent in this space. This, he says, is disappointing in light of policy objectives surrounding national productivity and housing affordability.

Michel agrees that prefabrication faces barriers to greater adoption.

First, he talks of a lack of understanding about prefabrication among architects and builders. In this regard, he says the industry needs to look at what is being taught about prefabrication in courses such as architecture or construction management by educational institutions. These institutions face challenges when teaching about prefab in light of the rapidly evolving nature of the field.

Beyond training people to work with prefabricated parts, another challenge revolves around equipping TAFE course and trade schools with the capacity to teach people how to actually do offsite manufacturing in the factory. In Bedrock’s case, Michel says that only two of his 40 workers on the production line possessed a trade qualification. The remainder had to be taught in-house.

This was challenging for TAFEs, he said, as offsite manufacturing is neither wholly construction nor wholly manufacturing but rather a hybrid of the two and as such does not fit neatly into common trade classifications.

A challenge flowing on from there revolves around perceptions. This is an issue not only with consumers as mentioned above.

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