Australia’s tallest prefab tower tops out at double speed

Construction of La Trobe Tower
Construction of La Trobe Tower

Hickory Group’s new method of high-rise prefab construction has seen Australia’s tallest prefabricated building rise two floors a week – double the industry benchmark – to top out eight months earlier than if regular construction methods were employed.

The 133-metre, 44-storey La Trobe apartment tower in Melbourne was also built using just a handful of people working nightshifts.

Designed by Rothelowman, the building was constructed entirely from prefabricated concrete and steel elements, with all the major construction work occurring offsite at Hickory’s Brooklyn factory.

Prefabricated building components including modular bathroom pods, precast concrete slabs and pre-attached windows were all trucked to site and craned into place. Once in place, shotcreting was used to provide structural stability between modules.

A spokeswoman for Hickory Group said this method allowed them to construct a prefabricated building of this height.

Hickory's Michael Argyrou with Victorian  parliamentary secretary Gabrielle Williams.

Hickory’s Michael Argyrou with Victorian parliamentary secretary Gabrielle Williams.

The company has invested significantly in its factory’s manufacturing capacity, managing director Michael Argyrou said.

Jobs for auto workers

The factory also received financial support from the federal government under the Manufacturing Transition Program, and several former GM Holden employees were part of the approximately 50-strong factory workforce that contributed to the design and delivery of the tower.

The Victorian Government’s Department of Economic Development also provided investment assistance to develop the modular bathroom pods that are used within the building.

The majority of the high-rise structure was installed during extended hours construction shifts, with the oversized prefabricated components transported to site at night to avoid disrupting tram and vehicle traffic on La Trobe Street.

A quiet electric crane and strict noise control measures were put in place and monitored throughout the eight-month night work period to ensure neighbouring residents were not disturbed by the activity.

Less people onsite

The Hickory spokeswoman said that only up to 15 people needed to be onsite for the night shifts, comprising traffic management, a crane crew, site supervisor and workplace health and safety personnel. A standard construction project by comparison involved a “cast of thousands”, she said.

At peak on day shifts, the construction crew included around 120 people, again a reduced number compared to standard construction, as some of the sub-trades for bathroom fitout including cabinetry and tiling were working in the factory on the prefabricated bathroom pods.

The spokeswoman said the factory setting enabled tighter quality control.

The fitout undertaken on site also happened more quickly, she said, as there were fewer trades competing for the use of lifting for materials and workers.

La-Trobe-HickoryEight months ahead of schedule

Mr Argyrou said the company estimates the prefabricated approach enabled the tower to be completed eight months earlier than originally planned.

“With this project we have proven that there are faster, safer and less disruptive ways to build. This represents the cutting-edge of innovation in the construction industry,” he said.

“We hope the success of this tower will lead to more widespread adoption of our building method. This would have widespread benefits for the environment, workers and consumers, while underpinning the creation of exciting new opportunities for the Victorian property and construction industry.”

Designers and construction working closely together

Rothelowman principal Stuart Marsland said it was the first time the architecture firm had been involved in a prefabricated project of this height.

“It’s an entirely new way of thinking, with designers working much more closely alongside the construction team than in a traditional build. More importantly, the new system can be applied retrospectively to buildings which have already been designed,” Mr Marsland said.

Rising at double the speed of typical construction

PrefabAUS chief executive Warren McGregor said the project demonstrated how Australian innovation was changing the construction landscape.

“The latest evolution of Hickory’s prefabricated building elements approach devised specifically for high-rise construction projects enabled the 44-level structure to rise at a rate of two floors per week, double the industry benchmark,” Mr McGregor said.

“Coupled with enhanced worker safety, 90 per cent waste reduction and reduced traffic congestion, this new approach represents world leading technology. Achieving this required a relentless drive to devise superior solutions by skilfully blending advanced manufacturing processes from the automotive sector with intimate knowledge of conventional construction.”

Mr McGregor said that as with all innovation, there was “much trialling and a few setbacks along the way”.

“But that will only energise, rather than dampen, efforts to bring about the next iteration of this exciting technology.”

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