The global housing solution
Prefabrication is growing around the world, but what does that mean to Australian builders? Kevin Ezard discusses the opportunities that abound and explains that a trickle down effect is inevitable.
Prefabricated housing is not a new concept – over the centuries there have been many examples of human shelter generated by this method, and just 100 years ago in the US you could buy a complete four bedroom prefabricated home from a Sears catalogue, ready for delivery and assembly!
In more recent times, skilled labour shortages and increased demand through urbanisation have led to a global housing shortage, and the construction industry needs to meet this growing challenge and build houses in a way that’s faster and cheaper.
To compound the issue is the low level of productivity in the construction industry overall, with virtually zero improvement in the past 20 years which is the lowest rating of all industries on a global basis. The investment in research and applied technology for the design and construction of buildings lags behind all other industries, with the vast majority of construction firms investing less than 1% of their revenue in new technologies.
In the housing construction industry, moving to offsite prefabrication has been the solution to this problem, particularly in Europe, where some countries have reached 80% of all homes built using timber offsite systems with high levels of efficiency.
In Australia, the building industry has been slow to move in that direction; however, increasing shortages of skilled labour has now become a key driver for greater adoption. This, by large, is thanks to new timber and mass wood offsite prefabrication facilities emerging to meet the growing demand.
In the US, the growth trend to prefabricated housing in the past year has been spectacular, with recent moves to mass production of buildings by a number of very large corporations.
These include Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (Google) company with new construction methods and flexible building designs enabling radical mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods that reduce the cost of housing.
Another example of this new approach is Katerra, a billion dollar start-up that is changing the landscape. As Craig Curtis, the president of Katerra Architecture stated,
“The benefits of off-site manufacturing are many — less waste, greater precision, safer work, fewer delays.
“But the greatest result stems from the decision-making shifted towards the front end of a project. By locking in the details necessary for manufacturing, we can significantly reduce risk to project schedules and budgets.
“This approach represents a wholesale shift of mindset from one-off projects to repeatable products, for mass production of componentised buildings.”
What this means to the residential construction industry in Australia is that change is inevitable, and new opportunities will arise due to the ‘trickle down’ effect from the major disruption now underway globally.
These changes will encourage acceptance of new ideas and new ways to generate efficiencies in building design and prefabrication, with greater collaboration and integration of the process to reduce costs and improve affordability of housing.
One of the world’s foremost authorities on off-site construction, US building systems company Entekra chief executive Gerry McGaughey, was keynote speaker at the October IWBC conference held in Boston.
Gerry has guided home builders in Europe and North America in transitioning from inefficient stick-framing to off-site construction – enabling them to significantly reduce cycle times and boost productivity while delivering higher-quality, more sustainable buildings.
In his presentation he commented, “The construction industry is like a baton relay race – hand over the baton and now it’s your problem.
“A key element for success is getting the people together to create systemic change and operate as a team. Also important is process improvement to drive change in efficiency.”
Another speaker, Tedd Benson, founder and owner of high quality Bensonwood and Unity Homes, advised the construction industry needs to develop better ways to build, but “improve not revolutionise” through process and product.
He advocated adoption of the best digital technology to “build it twice – virtual before actual” and embrace the software solutions now available to attain high levels of accuracy and quality in manufacture of energy efficient housing.
In Australia, these topics were discussed at the Frame 2018 Timber Offsite Construction two-day event in Melbourne. Both international and local experts presented in speaker sessions along with panel discussions.
Next year the conference and exhibition will be expanded thanks to the rapid growth in interest across the building industry.
The program will include more sessions, discussing topics of importance to designers and builders contemplating a move into offsite timber construction.