Market Pulse: A shift in focus could see prefab jobs boom

Apex House, photo: HTA

Australia’s construction industry is a long way behind Europe in the uptake of prefabrication, however with a few shifts in focus we could take advantage of this emerging opportunity, according to a leading expert.

Kathryn Bunn, project director of international project management consultancy SUPERFUTURE PROJECTS, is analysing data and benchmarking exemplar projects in the global prefab modular construction and manufacturing sector. She says our whole concept of bricks and mortar needs to change.

Kathryn Bunn, SUPERFUTURE PROJECTS

“Our understanding of housing and that embedded concept of ‘bricks and mortar’ really leaves a legacy which is prohibitive to prefab modular and other types of materials in the construction industry,” she said.

The US and European countries are reaping the benefits of prefab construction, which include improved quality, speed, safety and sustainability with less site disturbance and construction waste.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate from Germany, Ms Bunn said: “There are just so many projects happening, particularly in the EU. Because they have free trade of movement without tariffs and the free trade of labour across the EU member state, you are seeing a real expansion of prefab modular to countries across Europe and in multiple sectors like education, health, housing and, of course, commercial.”

Europe’s largest modular tower, Apex House, is 29 storeys and consists of 649 modules that took just 13 weeks to stack. Architects HTA Design are behind the London student accommodation, which has a BREEAM rating of “excellent”.

“The dialogue in the UK is that modular construction provides a much faster alternative to traditional construction without compromising on the quality or the versatility,” Ms Bunn said.

“Industry understands that prefab modular produces 80 per cent less waste, requires fewer onsite workers and provides certainty of cost, time and quality – three pillars of successful project management.”

The European School Frankfurt, which caters for children of staff at European Union institutions, is another great example.

City officials looked to prefab to accommodate an influx of students, and architects NKBAK designed a three-storey modular building using wood. The modules were fabricated in Austria with insulation, heating units, electrical cables, plumbing, acoustic panels and glazing installed at the factory.

South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, is seeing an explosion of prefab. While the majority of projects are small residential, there are also panel systems in large commercial and retail projects like the Cape Town Waterfront Development.

“The level of design and the quality of manufacture is exceptionally high,” Ms Bunn said. “You see a lot of designers and architects working in that space who have northern European connections so that is how the prefab modular has expanded there so quickly.”

Ms Bunn said South Africa had similar constraints to Australia – climate, resources and the tyranny of distance. Cape Town and Johannesburg are expanding cities experiencing affordable housing and traffic woes just like Sydney.

“Another benefit of having prefab modular – you can design and construct quite rapidly and because you are working on slabs with cranes you don’t need scaffolding and you don’t need to disrupt the traffic in and around cities.”

Ms Bunn recently returned from South Africa where she met with the South African Institute of Architects. She is also collaborating with the Institute of Architecture and Urban Development in Berlin.

“There is much interest in sharing knowledge between Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand,” she said.

“We have commenced commissioning a travelling exhibition which showcases some of the preeminent work from Europe and Southern Africa across the Southern Hemisphere.”

This will be aligned with conferences happening in those places so manufacturing and licensing agreements can be introduced to potential business partners.

Apex House tower , photo: HTA

Ms Bunn, who has worked at the NSW Land and Housing Corporation as well as with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, would like to see updates to government procurement guidelines.

“They definitely do need to review their procurement guidelines and their procurement process in the construction industry so they can expand to get prefab and modular construction on a competitive apples-for-apples type scenario,” she said. “There needs to be an opening up of the market.

“I think Australia needs to continue to connect internationally with some of the big players in northern Europe and America and through licensing agreements probably start manufacturing some of those IP manufacturing prefab models in Australia, and vice versa.

“We’re really keen to connect people internationally and set up a global knowledge portal around driving this forward.”

Ms Bunn said a number of players such as prefabAus were trying to increase prefab opportunities, and a multi-pronged approach was required.

“I think government needs to take the lead and I don’t think the budget provides enough incentives to make significant change in that space,” she said.

“We need architects to understand how those specifications are written and to engage with prefab modular; we need governments and local governments to allow it; the certifying authorities to certify the work. We need to understand that there are other opportunities … then we need training in the TAFE sector to actually train and skill people up.”

Sydney office for German solar giant

German solar energy system project developer Wirsol has opened its Sydney office as a base to expand its activities in Australia.

The first six employees have moved into the new premises at Manly and the team’s objectives are to realise planned solar farms and develop further projects.

Wirsol’s managing director Peter Vest said the Australian market had enormous potential for the development of solar energy and was an important part of the company’s international growth.

“Thanks to its holdings, Wirsol is today already a leading project developer in sustainable energy on the Australian continent,” he said. “We would like to maintain and further expand this position in future.”

The company is investing $AU380 million in the construction of three solar farms in Queensland and Victoria – the largest single investment in the development of solar in Australia to date. Further development is planned to achieve capacity for a total output in excess of 1GW by 2020.

For tips and inquiries contact Sandra Edmunds: sandra@thefifthestate.com.au

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