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Prefab: solution or symptom?

This article is based on a paper on prefabricated construction, asking if it is a solution or a symptom in the current state of global construction transformations. Prepared by David Chandler for Western Sydney University’s research week, it argued that universities were in a prime position to help find out the answer.

Any conversation about construction in Australia should be mindful that Australian and New Zealand construction industry turnover combined, is less than three per cent of global industry turnover. It is therefore pointless to consider remedies to construction’s domestic challenges that are merely state, territory or even nationally based unless they fit into a global context.

The construction industry is not immune from the transformations affecting all global industries. These are driven by changing technologies, big data, low-cost transportation and meeting customer fulfilment expectations competitively, reliably and quickly.” – BuiltWorlds

Expanding the context of prefab in a smarter modern construction world

Definitions for most things I have observed over 40 years in construction seem to morph into what presenters want to say or the audience wants to hear. Words such as productivity, sustainability or resilience mean differing things to different people.

Prefab in construction has been on a journey for a long time. Its meaning can conjure up images of temporary or permanent, part or process, and of cheap or quality. Of modular or flat-pack, or of having a particular material persona. One architect has even proclaimed “prefabedness” as a new design vernacular to rank alongside Corbusier or Lloyd-Wright.

Others see prefab as a movement, part of a seismic shift to redress many of traditional constructions ails. Others see prefab as enabling efficient distribution of the built world to meet the needs of transforming communities, wherever they may be. In these contexts, prefab conveys meanings including smart, timely, spatial, practical, social and economic.

Prefab in other forums will be defined as the panacea to waste and uncertainty. That it can embrace fast and responsive. In others, it infers constrained and compromised. And, prefab is the off-site industrialisation of traditional on-site construction methods. Prefab suggests innovative and entrepreneurial personas, just as it does the risky and unresolved ones. Irrespective of all these possibilities, prefab seems more about the vendor than customer.

Wikipedia defines prefabrication as the practice of assembling components of a structure (or building) in a factory or other manufacturing site, and transporting complete assemblies or sub-assemblies to the construction site where the structure is to be located. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines prefabrication as the assembly of buildings or their components at a location other than the building site. The method controls construction costs by economising on time, wages and materials. Both definitions are process-orientated.

These definitions do little to define the problems that prefabrication may be seeking to solve. They lack a value proposition that customers of the construction industry could take away – understanding “what’s in it for them”.

Is prefabrication a symptom of an industry that has lost its way? Is prefabrication just another tool available to constructors – like BIM, DfMA, Lean or CPM? Are they all just parts of the whole in making today’s construction, that never seem to add up to measurably better, smarter, safer, faster and cheaper? Does prefab assert an aspiration that will make a meaningful and quantifiable difference to construction’s past?

Have the root causes that underpinned the case for prefab to where it is today changed?

What’s in prefab for teaching academics, researchers and industry?

 As an industry and as academics, do we have sufficiently broad insights to inform the clients of construction about the opportunities to get more out of the investments they are making in today’s built world? Are our insights sufficient to inform construction enterprises of the opportunities to be more successful? And are our insights sufficient to inform the next generation of constructors about the challenges, the skills and the applications they need?

Construction is a chaotic incremental business. Most adaptations are marginal at best and quantifiably difficult to appraise. Most research in construction assumes the conclusions reached in the past are sufficient evidence to move ahead. Often academic process is slave to past research in pursuing the least resistant path to qualification and publication. Often academic teaching content further embeds acceptance that construction’s chaos is reality.

Some enterprises accept that business-as-usual is no longer viable and they are charting a new course without the need for industry-wide change as a precursor. Some are claiming achievements of as much as 40 per cent reduction in waste, in embedded carbon, in on-site construction time and workforce. Some are claiming a 40 per cent lift in off-site productivity.

Of course, these gains are difficult to evidence and their full potential is not revealed because the benefits only need to be tabled if a competitor looks like closing in. Most of the “how to achieve any real or perceived competitiveness” is secreted away as intellectual property. All the while, there are no baseline determinants in place to point to those on a truly viable future trajectory, versus those who are only launching from sub-par flat-lines.

In this context, prefab construction may need to redefine its current trajectory from one of “launch and hope” to one of “purpose and quantification”. Prefab may need to be rescoped and perhaps even rebadged. Perhaps a bigger picture of construction’s future needs to be considered. From a strategic perspective, considering how changing technologies, big data, low-cost transportation and meeting customer fulfilment expectations competitively, reliably and quickly in other industries should soon apply to modern construction, seems obvious.

At WSU, the new Centre for Smart Modern Construction (c4SMC) is tasked with rethinking construction’s future. The centre is not about abandoning the past; it is about examining how both old and new may be better synthesised to deliver measurably better and smarter construction outcomes.

The centre is focused on impact, via projects that are well-defined and scalable. A time of 3-5 years is a priority of c4SMC’s industry sponsors. They want to achieve usable, shareable, evidence-based insights into how a local smart modern construction enterprise hub may be the legacy of the large amount of new construction that will be performed in NSW over the 20 years.

Smarter construction will evidence quantifiable sustainability, assurance and resilience. It will embrace the globalisation, digitisation and industrialisation in future construction scoping, procurement, delivery and built use.

Smarter construction will rethink construction supply chain interfaces and how “smart contracts” will enable clearer performance and accountability, absent the uncertainty of historical scoping, risk allocation and combative industry culture.

It will translate how this type of thinking has been rooted-out in most industries that understand that short-changing customers to drive profits is a bad idea. It will show how smart enterprises realise exceeding customer expectations with reliable products and services is an antidote for their survival.

Why universities have the advantage of credibility in a modern construction industry

The traditional institutions of construction are at sea with the transformations occurring in construction today. The primary reason for this is that this industry has always seen itself as a protected eco-system either by physical isolation, by standards and regulations, by profession or skill, by sovereign jurisdiction or industrial boundaries.

These institutions have been under-delivering on the built-world sureties that they have long claimed as justification for their reasons for being.

The biggest challenge for construction today, is not unpacking what prefab means, but rethinking the context and framework into which the modern construction industry will be shaped.

Universities have the credentials to approach these challenges with unconflicted rigour, evidence-based reasoning and to consult widely. There has never been a better and more opportunistic time for academics, researchers and most importantly industry collaborators to develop shared pre-competitive insights about how smart modern construction may be performed more effectively and profitably.

Once informed pre-competitive, evidence-based knowledge and capabilities are shared, the quality of competitive innovations and customer-focused value propositions will evolve.

With this knowledge, both industry and academia will be better prepared to adjust their ecosystems to the new conditions. Preparing modern constructors for these conditions is the legacy that today’s academics and researchers can collaboratively create and deliver.

Universities have always been at the forefront of new knowledge discovery and delivering the applied leaning that ought to follow. But, the construction industry has become an extractive cash cow for governments, universities, investors and contractors. And the time has come to put back.

It is for forward-looking academics to determine if prefab is in fact a symptom or a solution. It is more likely that quest will firstly involve deeper understanding of the problems that the industry needs to solve.

This may point to the need for a more joined-up approach to organising construction’s pieces and parts than ever to fulfil the expectations of the industry’s customers and the community than prefab alone.

Adjunct Professor David Chandler is construction practitioner and industry engagement lead at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Prefab: solution or symptom?”

  • steve christo says:

    Mr Chandler,
    I commend the discussion.
    I have tried for years to bring our build costs down (through pre-fab) as our labour costs soar to unnerving heights.
    So for me, it has become a matter of regulated, consistent quality as well as reduced cost and time on site.
    So many products and systems out on the market thus far have been great on paper and not really worked as planned out in the real world… it’s been a frustrating ride.
    I do believe the answer is prefabrication …if the Germans can do it successfully then so can we. Perhaps we need a change in culture in the building industry where we drop attitudes like “it is what it is” and “tomorrow is another day” and adopt energetic, time conscious and responsible attitudes that show care, safety and gratefulness to employers and builders and developers and the people who take the big risks every day they wake up in this industry.
    Keep on keeping on and we will continue to support the conversation in the hope that one day, building in Australia may not be the drama and “working to minimum standards” that it is at the moment.
    Best regards,
    Steve Christo

  • Greg Cheetham says:

    I appreciate David Chandler’s thoughts on the Prefabrication industry and note his big picture position on the industry. Universities certainly are the hubs for the higher level research and creative thinking that will be required to drive the integration of prefab construction with the whole industry and potentially become the largest contributor in labour and materials and componentry for all constructions instead of the periphery industry it is today.

    But there needs to be consideration of the underpinning knowledge and skills provided by the trades and other employees within the offsite construction industry. More often than not its a pathway through the trades that provides the builders and contractors of the future for the vast majority of constructions in the built environment. The employees in the various workshops need a pathway through education so they are not trapped in occupations with no pathway for the future. We will not all have opportunity for a university education (and not everyone wants one), but there must be a pathway for the aspirational.

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