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Will shipping containers become the bricks of the 21st Century?

David Chandler kickstarts a national conversation about the role of basic building blocks in modern, integrated design that a more efficient Australian construction industry desperately needs.

The global construction industry is approaching 20 years into the 21st century and it’s obvious to all that the bricks we have known in the past are mostly approaching their twilight stage.

They are labour intensive, have a high carbon impact, are wasteful, and the quality of brickwork both manufactured and installed no longer epitomises buildings built for the 50 or so years that underpins what was known as bricks and mortar investment.

Plus, few designers feel the need or have the skill to embrace the fundamentals of good brick design.

A brief history of bricks

The major makers of bricks in Australia today did not invent them. Five thousand bricks, along with a skilled brickmaker and moulds, were carried on HMS Scarborough to Sydney Cove in 1788. Brick making was the first industry in the colony.

Australia’s first brick building, Government House, was officially opened on June 4, 1789 just 16 months after their landing. It is unlikely that today’s brickmakers would be prepared to collaborate and invent them, given the fierce industry competition these days.

A visit to most construction sites today shows the disregard the industry places on a product that defined the standards of craftmanship and respect for scarce resources that once prevailed in a designer’s office and on-site.

Architects were drilled to use a brick-rod in checking their designs to ensure the use of whole and half bricks were optimised.

Once, estimators were on the look-out for variations from standard brick utilization, as deviation meant waste and cost.

Many an estimator referred design drawings back to their originator for correction. Woe betide a foreman for over ordering, or a labourer for mixing more than just the right amount of mortar for use on any day.

The daily ritual on-site involved checking walls for plumb, joints for consistency and cavities for cleanliness.

Later, the foreman would ensure that brick leftovers, wall-ties and flashings were carefully gathered up at the end of each project, for the next. Today these leftovers are destined for the tip.

The brickwork disciplines that once prevailed never constrained designers from designing great buildings and external skins.

They were expected to last for 40 years and more. Great examples abound, many over a century old.

Imagining what next will no-doubt cause much consternation. When the conversation turns to systematisation and some basic disciplines, the more precious will say that they will fight to keep the flexibility to design whatever building form they feel best fits their solution for a client’s building.

The reality is that old brickwork demonstrates that they can have both unique designs and systematisation.

The questions will be: what system, and how to creatively apply them?

What might define the metaphor for “bricks of the 21st century”?

Modern construction methods are progressively looking towards higher value-added building components coming from off-site.

Low value on-site fabrication will progressively give way to the incorporation of smart pieces and parts that can be easily assembled on-site.

Increasingly, those pieces and parts will incorporate smart technologies and will feed into making smarter, more assured, customer facing buildings.

Smartness will not easily be incorporated into buildings reliant on on-site fabrication. Panels are a likely start point.

Whatever the solution is for a modern building system, it will involve systematisation. The solution should embrace both mass fabrication and mass customisation aspirations.

Some basic conceptualisation rules will need to apply. I believe that establishing these rules will require a good deal of pre-competitive collaboration amongst designers, specifiers, builders, manufacturers and installers.

Looking for the simplest parameters to define a modern systematised approach will be fundamental – there will be no winner takes all answer.

An Aussie solution will likely be different to the larger northern hemisphere model.

Just as Australia’s brick makers built an industry from the bricks imported in 1788, today’s manufacturers must come up with the basic building blocks that construction in the 21st century will need.

This will involve resolution of how all of the industry’s inputs will engage; including masonry, concrete, steel, timber and many composites of these and others.

I am not convinced that a robotic simulation of traditional brick laying, deploying a variant brick size and laying method will be the answer.

This innovation seems to be in front of the conversation now needed. It may have a role, but the answer will turn on the whole picture.

If I were to set out some aspirations for a brick alternative for the 21st century, these would include:

  • Panels of building skins should be made off-site and come with the complete pre-installation of lining, windows and doors, only requiring the simplest assembly on-site
  • Ideally, these elements should minimise the need for on-site scaffolding for their installation, and enable the internal construction to occur from a safe permanent enclosure. Melbourne’s Hickory Building System is an example of the possibilities
  • The external skin elements should offer a wide range of simply introduced finishes with the essential requirements of safe, durable and low carbon composition
  • Panels should be suitable for long production runs, with minimal shape changes
  • These elements should be easily transportable from factory to site. They should be relatively light, say 2.5t, and minimise wasteful for-transport-only material content
  • Most importantly, I believe all future basement, structure, cladding, roofing and waterproofing systems incorporated in tomorrow’s buildings must come with at least a 10 year properly underwritten warranty that they will perform as intended.

Of course, these alternatives will not be like traditional bricks at all. But they could simulate traditional finishes if the designer or customer so chose.

They would more likely involve smart new cladding compositions that deploy ceramics, fibre sheeting, metal and glass selected for durability, fitness for purpose, low maintenance and hazard risk. There are already many choices, with a rapidly expanding palette of innovative assembly alternatives.

It would be unfortunate if the endgame here drifted to modules and shipping containers. I have heard one architect suggest that a new building vernacular may involve buildings expressing their modularity.

My belief is that buildings created in this way would be faddish and not timeless. Traditional brickwork had timelessness and function at its core; so should what follows.

Bricks of the 21st century should provide the basic building blocks that a more efficient industry will need.

In a small market like Australia, innovation will only thrive if our industry collaborates to establish a “good for one, good for all” baseline for these pieces.

Testing the possibilities

It’s time to put a challenge out to those thinkers who will have lots to offer in this quest.

Thinkers like the designers who found a timeless Aussie housing model such as the Pettit and Sevitt solution of the 1960s. These houses and their easy buildability still shine today.

My initial thinking is that a full-brick equivalent may be 2700mm and the half-brick 900mm. Putting these dimensions into the mix in response to the criteria set out above seems to have potential.

I have also been guided by the need to shift from building design thinking that internal function should define external form.

A better view is discussed in Stuart Brand’s investigations into what happens to buildings after they are built.

His ideas on shearing layers, hard shell and more adaptable internal organisation of building frames makes sense.

Brand was also mindful of how organising building to grow and adapt offered smart options to minimise future waste and make construction more sustainable. We all need to do this.

The recent example of repurposing and expanding the Our Lady of Ascension Primary School by Catholic Education is in my view an example of what’s possible.

There were many lessons to learn from that project about how modern, integrated design capabilities will be needed to better join up the off-site and on-site work flows; and there were many assembly and detail challenges for all parties.

For now, the bigger conversation needs to be had. The following sketch is my straw man on the table.

It would be great if the wide readership of The Fifth Estate now took this further, perhaps even ending in a full day workshop sponsored by those who have the most to gain from some answers here; possibly CSR, Boral, Brickworks, BlueScope, the Forrest Wood Products Australia and others may see the collective merit.

This needs to be a joined-up conversation, accepting that all of construction’s essential elements have important and smarter roles to play.

Why this conversation is important

These reflections are not meant to be reminiscent. They are about early construction systematisation protocols such as those that enable today’s global kitchens and bathrooms market to flourish; disciplines that enable mass fabrication while delivering customers’ mass customisation choice; that enable the integration of all of a kitchen’s functional pieces and parts including appliances; that reduce waste and enable adaptation; and that should provide pointers to integrated domestic concrete, steel and timber industries that do not have to thrive at the expense of one another.

A Kaboodle kitchen.

We are talking about what next, as the modern capabilities of designers, manufacturers and assemblers of buildings are reimagined and brought into the class rooms of TAFE and universities.

Leadership is needed to avoid having our domestic industry’s future defined by shipping in both form and component.

That is why there is need for an urgent pre-competitive collaboration by some of the organisations mentioned above – to put in place the systemic protocols that will create new skills, new smart enterprises, new jobs and save many others from being replaced by smarter construction manufacturing elsewhere.

Such a collaboration does not seem possible while the industry continues to navigate the dog-eat-dog practices of the traditional construction marketplace.

There is, however, an emerging momentum that looks as though it will redefine how modern construction is organised, installed and operated.

Those leading this transition have observed that it is easier to make a constructor out of a manufacturer than a manufacturer out of a constructor.

This is a salutary observation that is likely to require a massive rethink of how modern construction technical skill qualifications should comprise the required training for tomorrow’s architects, engineers and constructors.

Speak to any construction professional who has honed their skills in Europe, and you will find how a solid technical grounding in materials, manufacture, assembly and quality defines their thinking.

It’s no wonder that the timber industry is putting the wind up the makers of steel, concrete and bricks.

Developments in timber technology and manufacture are being driven by the same industry systematisation that has led the way in kitchens and bathrooms.

It is European led, and it is supported by massive investment in manufacturing systems, digital enabling platforms, smart fixings and exports world-wide.

The Australian construction industry is still grappling with the what and how of modernising and systematising. The reality is that timber construction is just part of the future and others need to catch up.

shipping have become the global conduit of trade.

Their standardisation and functionality could distract the construction industry from the challenges of applying similar standardisations to the organisation of making, installing and adapting today’s built world.

I hope this conversation may help encourage the emergence of a modern Aussie construction sector, that breaks through its many silos to find a viable way forward.

About the author: David Chandler OAM is the construction practitioner and advocate principal at CE Advisory in Sydney, Australia. 


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Comments

One Response to “Will shipping containers become the bricks of the 21st Century?”

  • Anne Paten says:

    David, I find the idea of shipping containers and other ideas very unappealing. Why is it all about value-adding when it was always possible, and in my view it is still possible to build a quality building. The issue is what is an acceptable profit margin, and what is pure profiteering.
    I think that we do not always have to focus on re-inventing the wheel. bricks were durable – and lasted much longer than 40 years. If we look to Europe and older buildings in Australia, many (with some touching up) lasted centuries and are still standing. Of course you need skilled trades persons, these everywhere in short supply as Government (to appease Business) provided the de-skilling motivation as directed – but one fringe benefit, lowering wages.
    In relation to a 10-year warranty, for the amount of the investment I would suggest that any building should come with a minimum 50 year warranty.
    This brings me to a critical point. It is impossible to talk about future building materials, systems and ‘warranties’ when we have an industry of low-skills, when builders do not build and cannot build, when certifiers are in the pocket of the builders/developers and the only thing of which this industry is capably is erecting more and more third world buildings, of sub-standard score and unsafe. We as consumers have had NO warranties in reality for decades and we are in the midst of the biggest consumer disaster in our history. To me if can’t focus righting the many wrongs now, there is little point in looking to any future overlaid on such a disgraceful bedrock of ‘FAIL”.
    Finally, there will be no f uture with any possibility of predominantly decent first world standard buildings unless the number one stakeholder, namely consumers who pay the trillions of dollars are at the table and with voices and input. The lockout of consumers, together with the spin and lies to keep them ignorant of everything ‘building’, and the secrecy to protect bad public policy and the building cowboys has been the recipe for failure and where we are today. Respectfully, I think we should be looking at the catastrophe created from the last 40 years and try and turn it around. We know the how and why and it can be fixed – if there is someone ready to start rolling the right ball. This seems the most paramount, and to be addressed before there is any discussion about future directions or throwing the babies (and the bricks)out with the bath water. If not, we will continue on the downward decline from destruction to total ruination.

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