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Prefab sector on an unstoppable path to modernising construction industry

(L-R) Founding director of prefabAUS Damien Crough, Minister Lily D'Ambrosio, prefabAUS CEO Warren McGregor

The prefab sector is gaining strong momentum in its push to modernise Australia’s construction industry, according to new director of PrefabAUS and Wood and Grieve Engineers principal John Lucchetti.

The prefab construction industry was extremely progressive, he said, particularly in Victoria where manufacturers are looking to redeploy workers from the ailing automotive sector.

Mr Lucchetti’s comments follow the PrefabAUS 2015 Industry Transformation Conference held in Melbourne this week, which was opened by Victorian industry, energy and resources minister Lily D’Ambrosio and had over 170 people from across industry and government engaging around topics including design, engineering, research, workforce training, sustainability and finance.

“A common message [from the conference] was that we need to get industry, government and the industry bodies aligned,” Mr Lucchetti said.

“Prefab is here to stay, and modular thinking will be increasingly adopted across the whole field of modern construction codes.”

He said an issue many raised was the problem of financing modular prefab projects. Resolving it will require building confidence on the part of lenders, and to achieve that regulations are needed.

“It needs to be seen as a success, not a risk,” Mr Lucchetti said.

Mr Lucchetti also presented at the conference, and said one point he made was that more studies into the lifecycle costs and benefits of modular construction would be valuable to consolidate the business case. The environmental sustainability benefits, he said, were “100 per cent” present, but more research-backed proof was needed.

There has been some good research done in the UK and USA, he said, and RMIT has recently commenced some work along these lines.

“Really strong evidence of ESD outcomes would be a strong validation,” Mr Lucchetti said.

In terms of opportunities for the Australian sector offshore, while the falling Australian dollar adds to cost-competitiveness in foreign markets, the market is currently small.

He said his firm had only done one offshore modular project to date, in the form of bespoke modules with “a high value-add” for an IT sector client.

HASSELL principal Ken McBryde showcased a project his firm had done designing modular buildings using recycled plastic that were exported to hurricane-affected Vanuatu.

“It is possible [to grow an export market],” Mr Lucchetti said. “But whether we end up exporting the products or the ideas is an interesting question.”

He said the conference energy was generally positive, and that there were “a lot of people there to make things happen and to do business”.

“A lot were there to meet the people with expertise who can help them de-risk projects.”

The topic of codes and standards was also discussed in depth, with presentations from directors of the newly formed Modular Construction Codes Board.

Mr Lucchetti is also on the MCCB, and said work had commenced on developing the code, with a team of four PhDs at Monash University funded for a three-year program to steer its development. The $1.2 million in funding was jointly contributed by industry and the Victorian government.

He said the sector was seeing support coming from both industry and government directions, and that it was positive to see the industry “getting their hands dirty” in building the prefab momentum.

The conference also held a panel discussion and open forum on the recently released Victorian Government construction technologies discussion paper. A spokeswoman for PrefabAUS said the comments raised during the session would inform the content of the organisation’s submission on the paper.

She said the indications are the government wants to position Victoria as a centre of excellence for prefab construction.

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