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What you always wanted to know about the prefab business

Collins House

It’s risky business innovating in construction but for Hickory Group’s George Abraham, the inclusion of prefab has been worth it. It’s set the company up to assemble major hotels and some of Australia’s skinniest buildings using its Lego-like prefab offering. But Abraham says the quality-assured, low waste construction style still has its limitations in Australia.


Despite the savings on time and productivity and the advantages of low waste and high quality, Hickory Group’s managing director George Abraham told The Fifth Estate that the modular and prefabricated construction industry still has a way to go in Australia.

Part of the problem is our ideological preoccupation with unique buildings, and avoiding repetition. Unlike cars, where repetition is accepted (Ferraris all look the same but they are still considered beautiful, he points out), people expect all buildings to look different.

“It’s the way human beings consume buildings.”

That’s why his company doesn’t do all building components in its factory. Fitouts are one example, as people don’t want to see the same light fittings in every lobby.

The best components for modular construction are the ones that are internal, and out of sight.

“No one is ever passionate about a concrete slab.”

The company has decided to stick to those elements that lend themselves to prefab construction, and rely on conventional methods for the rest. Of its 1000-plus employees, only around 150 are involved in prefab.

Abraham says there are “no magic tricks” and that the company aims to have “the tools in the shed” to provide the buildings its clients want.

It also depends on the project ­– Abraham says it’s not a one-size-fits-all system. For a large, easily accessible site with low rise buildings, it’s better to pour out the concrete slabs in one go.

The company’s prefab offering is ideal for tall skinny buildings on sites that are hard to access so there’s minimal disruption with “thousands of concrete pourers going in and out of the city all day long”.

Its structural prefab capabilities won the company the job of building Australia’s slimmest tower, the 60 level Collins House project in Melbourne. Not only was there a single point of access and a tight space to manoeuvre, the site was complicated with the retention of the heritage façade of Melbourne’s historic Maker’s Mark building.

Collins House

Buildings with a lot of repetition, such as apartments or hotels, also lend themselves to prefab.

Abraham says the company has seen a surge in hotel work, especially in Melbourne where tourism is booming. It has multiple hotel projects underway, including the Hyatt Centric on Downie Street in Melbourne.

By relying on offsite construction elements, the company is able to compress construction times.

It managed to build the 250-room Hotel Chadstone Melbourne, MGallery by Sofitel in just 14 months. The quick build times don’t come at the expense of sustainability, with the hotel achieving a 5 Star Green Star rating, making it the first hotel to achieve this accolade.

Another project Abraham is excited about is the design of the company’s new headquarters, Market Lane at 68 Clarke Street, South Melbourne.

The company will occupy the top floor of the building, which will aim for a 5 star NABERS rating among other sustainability and wellness features, including lots of natural light, air filtration and internal green walls.

Innovation isn’t easy, but it tends to pay off

The company was started in 1991 by two brothers, Michael and George Argyrou, and now has a $1.4 billion workbook and an annualised turnover of $550-600 million.

What set the privately-owned business up for modular construction, George Abraham explains, was its transition to a self-perform model.

Instead of relying on subcontractors, the company’s own employees do the majority of the work on its construction projects, including structure, carpentry and façade.

He says that in the risk adverse construction industry, companies need to be able to absorb the risk if they want to go down innovative avenues like prefab.

“One of the limitations you have when you took at prefab and modular is that the current construction supply chain falls short.”

He says when it comes to innovation, “you’re banging you’re head against the wall” expecting others to take risks. “Early on, we realised we needed the capability to do things ourselves.”

The company needed its own facility to construct repetitive building componentry for its structure and facade work. This opened the door to further innovation to industrialise and systematise the traditional construction model.

Bathrooms were the company’s first real furore into prefab. Abraham says that bathrooms lend themselves well to offsite construction.

“To keep it really simple, your chances of quality are much higher in a well-lit factory where someone is working at waist height compared to crouching in a dark corner to a waterproof a wall or floor junction.”

The bathroom pods are put together on an assembly line in the company’s Laverton North factory, and then transported to construction sites to be craned into buildings.

The bathroom pod business is now a separate Hickory-owned entity, and sells the pods to external customers. He says the product has taken off in NSW because there’s been huge competition for tilers and other bathroom contractors.

The Victorian market is yet to embrace the prefab bathroom with the same enthusiasm.

From the bathrooms the company moved into prefabricated shall and envelopes. Although vertical columns and walls are often precast offsite, Abraham says his company does the whole structure offsite.

The building comes together like Lego, he says, with each floor layered on top of each other. This leaves just the finishing touches such as joinery, partitions and fitout.

It makes the building process really different. It cuts down the number of people needed on site, with a tall slender tower requiring around 200 for a traditional construction job but only 150 using modular methods.

The building method also cuts out the productivity drain that is people getting safety up and down the building.

“It makes the site more productive.”

He says it was important to keep modules light enough so that they are not limited by crane and logistics.

“Those were some very expensive lessons for us,”

The company owns its own a fleet of trucks to move the modules. It hires cranes but operates them itself.

Hickory’s new offices going in on Clarke Street, South Melbourne.

Prefab assures quality in a market plagued with poor buildings

For Abraham, the benefits of prefab are far-reaching, including its ability to cut construction waste and provide high quality builds.

George Abraham is the managing director of Hickory.

He says there’s major issues in the way buildings are procured at the moment, with one of the hurdles to quality the constant reworking after the design phase.

Each stage of construction is often rushed, with one set of subcontractors moving in just as the last lot are finished – conditions that are conducive to mistakes, he says.

But with a more integrated, seamless construction model, there’s more continuity and a better chance of putting together a high quality, defect-free building.

Another advantage of offsite is that more effort is put into the design from the onset, and there’s no chance of design falling by the wayside during construction.

 

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