Amy Marks is president and owner of XSite Modular Consulting, a modern methods of construction (MMC) consulting firm.

Marks was previously president and chief sales and marketing officer at Kullman in the United States, and a principal of Kulka Construction, a construction management firm in New York.

Architecture and Design spoke to Marks about common misconceptions about prefabrication, what Australia can learn from other countries, and why prefab experts need to be vendor neutral.

What misconceptions do people typically have about prefab construction?

People often only think of prefabrication as only volumetric boxes. Prefabrication or off-site is actually a continuum of elements ranging from intelligent materials, components, subassemblies and also volumetric modules. Many of these elements are invisible to the design and are integrated at the system level like steel frame panels, prefabricated electrical wiring and service modules.

Eco balanced 1 by Beaumont Concepts consists of two simple volumes juxtaposed to provide functional spaces. Image: Warren Reed @ Coast Magazine

How do different countries around the world approach prefab construction?

Countries that are setting the standard in construction, like Singapore, are actually requiring the use of prefabrication in projects. They are incentivising developers with monetary incentives to utilise volumetric modules, recognising that these efforts will increase productivity in their industry and grow a supply chain to support their efforts, ultimately driving down the cost of construction while increasing quality.

Other countries are led more by commercial companies that are utilising modern methods of construction (MMC) including lean, building information modeling (BIM), prefabrication, and other technologies. They recognise that to create a competitive advantage in the industry they have to evolve, and have initiatives to train their teams to design using BIM and design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) principles, and to optimise off-site and prefabrication.

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What can Australia learn from these countries?

It’s really about adapting processes to enable modern methods of construction and increasing collaboration from moment zero to understand and drive value into the project. Australia must continue to grow its capabilities in BIM and MMC to stay productive. Working with experts both from Australia and other countries to create international panels of experts, is important to speed up this learning process. Australia also needs to take advantage of its skilled workforce, including those that will be displaced from the automotive industries in order to keep that skillset before it’s lost.  

What barriers are there with prefab construction at the moment?

There are several actually. First, there are very few experts that are vendor neutral; experts that are not trying to sell you a product. Teams need to look at prefabrication holistically at the conception of the project and design projects with the prefabricated elements and potential suppliers in mind. Currently, it’s done in the reverse; teams design projects and then look to prefabricate elements, which limits prefabrication potential and creates suboptimal designs.

How could those barriers be broken down?

Owners and developers must demand change. That’s first, because the industry will evolve to those demands. They must hire experienced experts because time and money is lost when you have to “recreate the wheel”. Architects must learn to design using DfMA principles. Construction managers must adapt their procurement processes to enable more prefabrication. Suppliers of prefabricated elements must know their value proposition, create design guidelines and understand the impact of their element on the design. And lastly, government and authorities having jurisdiction must promote productivity as this is truly at the heart of the issue.

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What is the hardest aspect of selling prefab construction to the property industry in Australia?

Until there is true dissatisfaction on the part of the owners and the larger players in the industry, change will be slow. That dissatisfaction, a vision to enable prefabrication and concrete actionable steps to adapt the design and procurement processes are a must to overcome any remaining resistance in the industry. The industry wants change. The challenge is they may not understand how to change.

How do you think prefab will develop over the next few years?

There will be more emphasis on intelligent materials, components and subassemblies and the integration of these elements into design, procurement and construction. Ultimately, this will lead to increased use of volumetric modules as well. I think the larger players will adopt and enable prefabrication into their processes that will ultimately grow a supply chain in Australia to support the industry.

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