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The future of buildings: product to process

Why should we care about the future of buildings? This question was posed last week by Dr Mathew Aitchison, Professor in Architecture and lead for the University of Sydney’s Innovation and Applied Design Lab at August’s Sydney Ideas – The Future of Building. There, leading national and international experts proposed a shift in the way we think about building to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The conversation was timely – over the last 10 years the record rates of building seen in many countries have not kept up with demand. In the next decade, this rate of production needs to accelerate to remain abreast of existing and emerging social and economic needs.

Dr Aitchison believes it is no longer sufficient to make more buildings in less time. Buildings need to be more affordable, reduce environmental impact, perform better, be safer, stronger, more durable, more flexible and smarter. All this is in addition to being functional, embodying great design and promoting wellbeing and delight in their users. The forum coincided with the launch of Dr Aitchison’s new collaborative publication Prefab housing and the future of buildings: product to process. This book is an important piece of work for every modern construction stakeholder to consider and absorb.

Dr Aitchison’s book is in plain English, well-structured and draws insights from 18 respected authors including Helena Lidelow and Dan Engstrom describing their experience with Assembly and Construction Methods for industrialised housing and platform systems, and Ryan E Smith’s investigation into business models and industrialised construction.

The book has broad appeal and will reward its readers.

Is prefab construction a passing fad? What’s holding it back in Australia?

Dr Aitchison muses about a complex and unruly thicket of past prefab contradictions and opportunities that never quite lived up to their promise. He points to the challenges of consumer expectations and their increasing demand for interaction with services and new products.

He also includes reference to Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn – what happens after they’re built?, a book as relevant today as it was when first published in 1994, and discusses shearing layers which could be used to inform the modern idea of planning buildings around the concepts of a “Hard Shell and CoreandSoft Centre.

Hard shell- soft centre, informed the planning of the new Terminal 2 at London’s Heathrow airport and has since helped inform how off-site construction manufacture (OSCM) is being used in the UK. The UK is very focused on developing a resilient modern construction industry.

While hard shell – soft centre is not a new idea, it could be the key that unlocks a balance  between mass-manufacture and mass-customisation. This may switch on the lights for a modern construction eco-system that Lendlease’s Daryl Patterson describes as having missed the boat in all prior industrial transformations.

Stewart Brand was highly critical of the entire modernist approach to architecture. He fully rejected the “centre out” approach to design, where a single person or group designs a building for others to use, in favour of an evolutionary approach where owners can change a building, over time, to meet their needs. He focused specific criticisms on modernist innovators like Buckminster Fuller for making round buildings that do not allow any kind of additions or internal divisions, and Frank Gehry for making buildings that were hard to maintain. Brand would possibly have been at home today disrupting the OSCM status quo.

Drawing-in other industries and their transformative achievements

At Sydney Ideas – The Future of Building, Andrew Stevens, Chairman of Australia’s Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre accused Australia’s construction industry of being the second least productive and advanced sector of all industries. He challenged the industry’s perspective where customers were confronted with having to choose between cost, time and quality. He said that other industries have a different mindset. Construction needed to turn its mind to customisation at affordable prices. Stevens challenged that the global construction industry’s scale now holds-out extraordinary opportunities for those that are truly customer facing and develop value propositions that customers actually want and are prepared to pay for. He pointed to the Apple value proposition where material content makes up less than six percent of retail price.

Lendlease’s Mr Patterson weighed-in, stressing that the future of construction was not in solving procurement failures on the job-site. He called out the industry’s expensive, unpredictable and wasteful business models as unsustainable. Patterson declared this a western-world challenge wedded to ancient industrial practices and culture. He declared that the industry had run out of energy in moving past the notion that shrinking its product was the only way of making buildings affordable. More for less needs to displace less for more.

What should a modern construction industry look like in 10-years from now?

Dr Matthew Aitchison, Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney, wrapped-up the forum by asking panel members to point to three things that might define a successful transformation of the industry within 10 years. Stevens rallied everyone to read McKinsey’s Compete to Prosper in his hope that construction can crack-it in the global market place. He pointed to manufacturing not having production amnesia and OSCM having two critical ends – value and service. Mr Patterson pointed to customer centricity.

But the elephant in the room was the unspoken aspirations of the audience. The conversations outside the forum included alternative visions for the Australian construction sector including:

  • Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) capabilities as a critical pathway to joining the dots between design and make
  • Our deeply dysfunctional multi-state governance agencies developing future-relevant capabilities and built-world assurance credentials to reinstate their reputation for reliability, trustworthiness and quality
  • Reducing the obscene rate of construction business failures in Australia by improving their business capabilities
  • A shift in academic research from an emphasis on publishing for publishing’s sake, to creating genuine positive industry impact
  • That a resilient industry safety culture and practices ensure at least 80 per cent reduction in time lost to injuries and deaths compared to 2018
  • Australia’s top 100 ASX construction and manufacturing companies crossing the critical chaos divide to make business model changes which reward patient shareholders and become world class players in the new built-world era
  • A future-industry narrative that transforms the modern construction industry into an exciting frontier for school leavers to explore as a career choice
  • That offshore sourced building inputs are stemmed by a new cohort of construction industry leaders and entrepreneurs driving a viable domestic hub of modern construction enterprises
  • Government recognition of construction as a key economic pillar, alongside industries like aerospace, health, mining, agriculture, IT and biopharma.

When these aspirations start turning-up in real life – when a modern Australian construction industry ticks these boxes – we will have demonstrated that the days of waiting for someone else to fix today’s problems are over. It will also demonstrate whether pre-fabrication is the future, or a passing fad.

David Chandler OAM, FAIB is the Principal of CE Advisory and Industry Engagement Lead at the Centre for Smart Construction (c4SMC) at the Western Sydney University.

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Comments

One Response to “The future of buildings: product to process”

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Thanks for the update on the construction industry here vis a vis the UK.

    I understand the PreFab industry over there really took off when novation and other risk issues were clarified/assured by the BOPAS scheme?
    Perhaps Australia needs something similar? Or is there one?

    And Lendlease’s Mr Patterson’s observation also reflect an ageing construction workforce?

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