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Technology and prefab could change the game for housing construction

DNW Group managing director Dean Willemsen at the completion of the first Heuga prototype house built in Schofields, Sydney.

Builder and entrepreneur Dean Willemsen made the AFR Young Rich List this year and founded end-to-end property development company Clearstate when he was just 26. Now he’s found a way to modernise housing construction for the mass consumer market.

Willemsen’s mission, he says, is to do what nearly every other sector has already managed to do: put the customer first.

This means providing customers with a seamless home building experience where they aren’t bogged down with the technical details going on behind the scenes. 

They need only to know the important stuff, Willemsen says, such as what it will look like and when it’s being built.

The recently launched Heuga online platform led by the DNW Group claims to provide just that. It’s the customer-facing component of a new collaborative building model premised on off-site construction.

Its role is to “join the dots” or mediate between the many different businesses involved in supplying the componentry of building a home. At this stage, the collaboration includes Impresa House, Masterwall and Elderton Homes.

The customer ends up with a high quality home, minus the stress and confusion.

Willemsen says people are unnecessarily preoccupied with how a home is built. He also says this attitude is fairly unique to the construction industry.

“As an industry, you look closely at how [building a house] happens. Let’s get away from the process – you don’t think about how the car is put together before you drive it,” he says.

“We’re so obsessed with how [building a house] happens.”

This is fair to an extent because the traditional way of building a house relies on a complex consortium of tradies and specialists who are often working in isolation, which leaves a lot of room for error and miscommunication.

Prefabrication simplifies the building process, breaking it into fewer building phases. This minimises the chance of a mistake and improves assurance that the customer will end up with a soundly-built home.

But the customer won’t be left entirely in the dark. It’s quite the opposite, with customers able to track which stage the building is at from an app on their phone, Willemsen says.

The other benefit of partnering with off-site construction companies is that it slashes the building time. For the first prototype house built at Schofields in Sydney’s north-west, which was finished a couple of weeks ago, it took 15 days to complete from slab to exterior.

The roof going on the first Heuga prototype house in Schofields in late November.

Customers also get to “choose their own adventure to a certain extent” and select the design and finishes of the home through the app.

“It’s within set parameters… it’s what we call ‘mass-customisable’. It’s within a template, but still, not one house is the same.”

All the different components are put together in a factory and then assembled on-site.

The method is considered safer for on-site workers, typically generates less waste, uses more sustainable materials, such as timber, and includes a 10-year warranty.

Selling prefab to Australians is all in the messaging

Although some Australians are hesitant to the idea of prefabricated homes focusing on the benefits is key to selling the concept, he says.

“If you lead with prefabrication there’s connotations. But when you lead with warranty, less time, then people say ‘where do we sign?’”

It’s likely to be cheaper in the long run

Building a home through the company is currently around the same price as a normal build, but “more economical in the long run because of the quality control in the factory”. Although not Passive House, Willemsen says there’s been a lot of care taken in ensuring homes are well insulated and air-tight – things that “consumers are starting to expect and demand.”

The offering is likely to become cheaper as demand increases.

And Willemsen is confident. He says since the launch last week the “phone has been running hot” and the next availability for delivery is pushing to 2020.

“This is a really collaborative approach that I know our industry is missing. We’re all in this together.”

Detached homes first, the “missing middle” next

There’s currently eight full time staff employed at DNW Group shared across Heuga and the other companies in the portfolio.

The plan is to keep growing organically to meet customer demand. Although starting out with detached homes aimed at first and second home buyers, the plan is to eventually move into low- and medium-rise housing.

“Our real target is the missing middle in Sydney & Melbourne, that being the low rise residential apartment housing space which is fundamental in addressing our growing population’s needs.”

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