Prefab is the future. How will it affect you?

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Prefabricated and modular construction is greener and leaner: reducing waste, down-time, build-time, theft, vandalism and can lead to a better quality product according to Associate Professor of Environmental Design at the University of Melbourne, Dr Masa Noguchi.

Prefab3Despite the benefits, prefabricated construction in Australia currently makes up only 3 per cent of the residential construction market, a long way behind the 74 per cent of prefab world-leaders, Sweden.

However Aussie figures are steadily increasing thanks, in part to what Dr Noguchi calls a “paradigm shift from mass production to mass customisation”.

At the forefront of this shift are companies like Melbourne-based Hickory Group who recently made BRW’s Innovation List for the second year in a row for its prefab systems.

Hickory Group offer tailored prefab construction design without height limitations using prefab rates of between 30 to 80 per cent and complete builds over 50 per cent faster than conventional methods.

Hickory’s communications manager, Nadia Salajic told TTT: “Hickory prefab buildings don’t come in a set type, they are as architecturally flexible as conventionally built projects.”

“Once the building is complete on site you wouldn’t know that it was built off site, as it looks, feels and performs the same way as a conventionally built project,” Salajic said, adding they believe they are the first to build high-rise towers using structural prefabrication.

“Most modular builders use shipping container type systems [panellised steel boxes]and are limited to projects of just a few stories.”

The other benefit of prefabrication is the ability to produce nature-proof buildings more efficiently: termites, cyclones, fires and flood resistance is a key feature of many prefabricated construction specialists.

“Prefabrication and modular construction is the way to break through and take things to a new journey of industrialisation,” Dr Noguchi said, describing up to 80 per cent of components being manufactured inside a factory as enabling standardisation and better quality control.

He explained that production lines generally created either two dimensional panels – wall, floor and roof panels fabricated in a factory and assembled on site, or three dimensional modular systems where entire spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and staircases are manufactured off site and include panels, wiring and ducts.

“Modular construction is the most advanced way to reduce construction waste… it is then transported to the building site and put together like lego blocks,” Dr Noguchi said.

Just how seriously this is being taken on a global context is evidenced by the growth of prefabricated housing arms in companies like Sanyo, Panasonic and Toyota. Companies with plenty of experience in production lines.

PrefabricationAsked whether prefab was reducing the skillset required of tradespeople in the construction process Dr Noguchi said advanced knowledge was less likely to be required and that a recent graduate would probably have the required skillset.

“The standardisation of products and processes definitely eliminates the complexity,” he said, although added there was a requirement of industry to keep up with growth projections.

“The tendency for prefab is to grow, and to do so we must not only have the automated construction machinery but the labour who can work together with the machinery.”

“The labour forces need to be aware of the paradigm shift and be aware of how to build the construction swiftly.”

Salajic said that trade skills required are essentially the same as conventional projects.

“There is a mix – obviously those people working on plumbing and electrical implementation, joinery, tiling etcetera need to have specialist skills in this area but people working on structural frame assembly, logistics and warehousing don’t need to have any specific trade qualifications.”

According to Construction Skills Queensland (CSQ) CEO, Brett Schimming, there previously was a Cert 3 in Off Site Construction although it was not popular and the relevant skills are now taught in current construction training packages.

“Whether the industry will require ‘prefab certified only’ courses in the future largely depends on the future growth of the sector,” Schimming told TTT, adding that he expects some prefab specialist skillsets will be required, with a greater demand for production line workers who will require skills in one or two particular areas specific to their role in the process.

Which poses the question: If construction is moving from on site to a production line in a factory, will it take some of the creativity and enjoyment out of the work for tradies? Schimming doesn’t think so.

“Some people will be happy working on a production line sheltered from the extremes of weather… whereas others will prefer to work outside… those who receive greater job satisfaction on site will still be able to work on site,” he said.

Whether or not there is a decrease in jobs for on-site workers as a result of the shift remains to be seen, however Schimming said the continued growth of prefab will provide different career options for those considering a career in construction, as well as the opportunity for re-skilling and cross-skilling for existing workers.

Industry advances

Despite all the benefits, Schimming said prefab in the housing sector suffers an image problem with the old stigma of “kit homes” remaining strong.

However the industry is working together to enhance prefab’s reputation which includes the establishment of an industry specific code.

“This is currently being finalised.  Hickory is a part of the process to establish a Modular Construction Codes Board (MCCB) along with leading universities, research bodies and industry,” Salajic said.

That comes along with the recent establishment of PrefabAUS, the new peak body for prefab in Australia which has an interim goal to increase the use of prefabrication in Australia’s construction industry from 3 per cent to 10 per cent by 2020.

Dr Noguchi said the establishment of PrefabAUS should help to address the limited number of manufacturers in Australia sharing information and technology, a reason we have been falling behind other nations.

“They cannot establish the value and the culture… the association has a key role in developing [that].”

With the industry working together to enhance the image and further the development of prefabricated construction, it is hard to see anything but growth for this game-changing industry.

As Schimming describes it: “Prefab, at scale, could potentially offer a faster build, reduced material costs, reduced errors and need for rework and rectification, minimal waste and disposal, and be less affected by poor weather.”

Hard to argue with that.

All images: Hickory Group

Uptake of prefabrication (Housing Sector only). Source : PrefabAUS
Australia 3% With an ambition to achieve 10% of the market by 2020
UK 4% Prefab housing makes up less than 4% of new buildings (2005)
Spain and France 5% In France this figure is rapidly increasing due to strict building green codes
New Zealand 17% PrefabNZ is aiming to double that by 2020!
Germany 17% Increasing rapidly, again due to speed, quality and strict building green codes
North America 30% Up to 1/3 all new single-family houses are modular or manufactured
Japan 35% Prefabrication seen as a medium to high-end product
Finland 50% Quality focus for prefabrication, Long acceptance of prefabrication
Sweden 74% Quality focus for prefabrication, Drive for energy efficiency, environmental protection
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Tom is the founder and publisher of Tools Trades Toys. He has been working as an editor and producing content for the trades for around five years. He loves to tell a good story.

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