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Inaugural prefab conference brings manufacturers out of the silo

The prefabAus conference. Image: Rom Anthonis

Last week’s prefabAus conference in Melbourne has given the industry a sense of identity and greater cohesion, according to one of the association’s founding directors, Rob Colquhoun.

The conference brought together key representatives of companies working in the prefab space, with about 160 delegates ranging from materials giant James Hardie through to architects and building manufacturers.

Mr Colquhoun said manufacturers involved in prefab were transcending the traditional “parochial” approach of siloed operations and finding ways to “grow the pie” together.

“We are all starting to share ideas and develop market niches,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“Now we’re happy to broadly open our arms to designers and materials suppliers and say, ‘Come on in.’ An inaugural conference is always very interesting; sometimes it’s mostly a talk fest but at this one there was a sense of overwhelming support and energy about where this is all going. When you get people together, you start to see where the thinking is going.

Rob Colquhoun. Image: Rom Anthonis

Mr Colquhoun said one criticism was that “sexy stuff” like high rise apartment building was covered extensively, though there were a lot of other areas of importance in the space.

“I would have liked to see more focus on education of the customer, for example, showing the customer that here it is, it’s a change of paradigm, and explaining to them how they should be looking at,” he said.

“In the residential sector, prefab has gone from being a holiday home or weekender type option to being a mainstream housing option.”

Mr Colquhoun’s own companies, Prebuilt and Precom, have seen an expanding demand for design-led prefabricated buildings. He said prefab was particularly making sense for sites where there was a lack of good local resources in terms of materials and labour for traditional building, but also a need for good design and speed of construction. The one limitation, he said, is the need for good access to the site to transport building modules to the location.

“It is now a viable alternative to how things were done in the old days,” he said.

“We are trying to have [prefab] make sense where it makes sense.”

Budgets get bigger and bespoke solutions push sustainable envelope

A house at Inverloch by Prebult

Colquhoun said client budgets for individual building projects have grown from exclusively $500,000 and under a decade ago to as high as multimillion dollar homes, such as a $3 million home recently manufactured and installed in Sydney. Currently, Prebuilt is producing between 30 and 50 houses annually.

An engineer by background, Mr Colquhoun said time, speed and quality control were three of the major benefits of prefab. In addition, there are key points where sustainability can be improved, including improved waste management, designing for close to zero carbon outcomes and stringency in the supply chain.

“With more complicated projects, more can be done off-site, so there is less waste. Prefab is also more efficient in terms of getting resources to site,” Mr Colquhoun said.

A recent study tour of Japan with Masa Noguchi, a University of Melbourne researcher who is coordinator of the Zero Energy Mass Custom Home network, gave insight into the possibility for design, materials and manufacture to be refined to achieve homes that are ever-closer to zero carbon.

Mr Colquhoun said studies have estimated that over a person’s lifetime, housing comprises 10 per cent of their total energy use, with 60 per cent of this from the operation of the home and 10 per cent from materials.

“Japan is heading towards bringing that down to zero,” he said.

“And you don’t get there if you don’t start somewhere. We need to start the conversation as to why it is relevant and reduce carbon footprints. This translates to looking at materials suppliers, how we build and how we design.”

Recently, reed bed water recycling systems have been installed at several of Prebuilt’s projects, after Mr Colquhoun trialled one on his own property. He also said there was quite a high level of demand for composting toilets in their projects, even in inner-city suburbs.

Another benefit of prefab is that supply chains can be managed much more efficiently and clearly, examining the green credentials of suppliers and then locking in procurement arrangements without needing to tender for every building project. This gives the suppliers certainty, and the ability of the firm to warehouse materials, such as a truckload of frames to be used across multiple dwellings, delivers economies of scale.

Waste reduction is one of the major ways in which material footprints can be reduced through prefab.

“Because we’re manufacturing six to eight houses at a time, we can accurately analyse the materials that go in,” Mr Colquhoun said. “We weigh each project every time we lift in on the crane and that is to about a kilogram’s accuracy, and we have the ability to separate waste for recycling in ways you just cannot on a building site.

“In our factory even plastic wrappings from materials are being separated out for recycling. That idea actually came from one of our carpenters.”

This, he said, is an example of how workers in a prefabrication facility develop a sense of “ownership” of the process.

“With a normal building project the workers go from job to job, they don’t develop that sense of ownership. With prefab, the whole company is delivering the building, and all the workers can develop a level of pride, and can feel an absolute sense of ownership.”

Prefab, he said, has “enormous capacity to broaden the skill base” in the construction and manufacturing industries. The traditional trades of carpenter, plumber and electrician are still part of the foundational skills, but there is a broader job spread, with manufacturing workers assisted by technology able to undertake some of the tasks that on a regular site could only be undertaken by a sophisticated tradesman. Structural engineers are also in demand in the prefab sector, and the use of 3D modelling is streamlining the collaboration process between in-house designers and engineers and specialists consultants and architects.

Reduce waste, not wages

While in many industries, the cost of labour is cited as an impediment to industry growth and competitiveness, Mr Colquhoun said for his firm, the cost of wages is not the key issue for the bottom line.

“The contribution of labour to overall price is less than 50/50,” he said. “For us if we don’t have well-paid workers who have that passion, interest and attention to detail, everything gets harder. Quality control gets harder. Safety gets harder.

“Before we start attacking wages, there is so much waste in the overall process which can be reduced, including in how we design, procure, and in materials. There is so much room to take the pressure off wages.”

Already looking ahead to next year

Mr Colquhoun said prefabAus will be holding another conference next year, with the focus remaining firmly on the Australian industry and its innovators.

“Our brief isn’t to be there for the companies who are importing prefab buildings, but to grow the local industry,” he said.

“Prefab won’t be the solution for everything, but it is part of the solution.”

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