In recent years we’ve been hearing more and more about modular and prefab buildings. Stunning cliffside homes built in mere weeks, sustainable and functional schools ready to be stacked to the sky as cohorts grow.

These are some of the examples we’re seeing more often, with people marvelling at the speed, reduced cost, sustainability and flexibility that comes with a modular build.

The question is, why aren’t we harnessing these benefits for our commercial builds?

The benefits of modular and prefab

Estimates show that modular buildings can be completed up to 30 - 50 percent faster than their traditional counterparts. Not only is this highly convenient, but it leads to reduced costs. It is important to note that while a modular build may cost more than a traditional build upfront, the client will typically save a significant amount of money on construction timelines.

It is also much easier to make a modular/prefab building sustainable, with buildings of this type leading the market in the use of recycled materials. The controlled off-site construction process also ensures less waste.

Due to the nature of their design and construction, modular buildings are also much more flexible than traditional buildings. It is easy to alter the design of an existing building, or quickly add on more rooms.

And finally, modular and prefab structures have higher quality control than typical buildings. Built in a controlled environment under ideal conditions, these buildings are not vulnerable to factors such as weather or inconsistent construction practices.

Why don’t we create modular commercial buildings?

Internationally, modular and prefab structures are certainly growing in popularity. This is mainly in the residential sector, and led by advanced manufacturing nations such as Japan, Germany, Finland and Sweden, according to Angus Kell, business development manager at CSR Inclose.

Common attributes to the success of modular and prefab in these markets include:

•          An appreciation of engineering excellence and quality products

•          A history in advanced manufacturing, commonly from the automotive industry

•          A strong regulatory environment in relation to quality standards

•          Energy efficiency together with significant accountability of the contractor

•          The requirement for short construction timelines due to external factors such as weather

According to CSR, in markets where there is a lesser uptake of modular and prefab (such as Australia and the United States), there are also a number of common reasons:

•          Less appreciation of engineering and build quality

•          Markets are price-sensitive and adverse to change as they are risk-averse

•          Have little experience in off-site manufacturing

•          Often have complex entrenched supply chains that suit the typical builder/developer

•          Have little legislative accountability

“In the commercial market in Australia we have seen the green shoots of [modular construction] over the last decade with the initial uptake in modular pod bathrooms, but more recently we are seeing a move into pre-fabricated structures, facades and services,” adds Kell.

The growth of prefab in Australia

The prefabrication of commercial structures is definitely a growing market in Australia, with examples such as Lendlease’s International House Sydney and 25 King leading the way.

These structures use cross-laminated timber (CLT), a material created by gluing boards of cut timber together and cross-laying them.

XLam, which says it was the first company in the Southern Hemisphere to open a CLT plant, is an expert in the matter.

“Mass timber structures offer sustainability benefits whereby they actually sequester CO2 from the atmosphere thanks to the storage abilities offered by the timber product we use,” says John Eastwood, head of business development at XLam.

“Unlike concrete and steel, wood has zero embodied carbon, making it the only carbon positive long-span structural building product. In addition, mass timber structures are around 20 percent of the mass of concrete structures which allows mass timber buildings to be built in areas that concrete otherwise wouldn’t (i.e. vertical extension to existing buildings or on poor ground conditions).”

The Plant and Food Research Centre is a great example of XLam’s work in the commercial space.

Until recently, crown agency Plant and Food Research had to support the industry from inferior facilities on scattered sites. The new Seafood Research Centre brings these operations together in a purpose-designed building located at Port Nelson, New Zealand.

The reclaimed land required a light construction solution, with timber being an obvious choice. Apart from 15m long piles penetrating the old seabed to support a concrete ground floor, all main components are wood.

The structural design hinges on the use of locally manufactured, lightweight prefabricated engineered timber components. The two-storey offices and administration building incorporate a blend of products from XLam, Nelson Pine Industries and Potius Building Systems.

According to XLam, the main structural support and shear walls comprise XLam five-layer 130mm thick CLT panels rising the full height of the building, connected to the floor slab by cast-in projecting steel dowels over which the factory-drilled panels were lowered, with epoxy adhesive inserted once the panels were positioned. The walls were rapidly installed and wrapped against weather until the building was enclosed. The XLam walls support a Potius floor fabricated from LVL, while bracing to the open south wall is provided by LVL cross columns.

Floor levels are linked by XLam AirStairs which provide a strong design feature to the double height entry. Much of the mass timber is clear-finished, delivering warmth and ambience to the interior.

Another interesting example of prefabricated commercial spaces is Lendlease’s Daramu House. Daramu House is the second engineered timber building at Barangaroo South in Sydney, and Lendlease’s sixth engineered timber building in Australia. When finished, it will consist of over 10,000sqm of commercial floor space and approximately 680sqm of retail space, according to George Konstandakos, head of DesignMake, a branch of Lendlease.

“We were limited to only pre-assembling the brace bays for Daramu House. This was a significant achievement, as an element previously taking three hours to erect onsite can now be installed in 15 minutes. [However,] due to site and design constraints we were unable to pre-assemble the vertical elements such as lift and stair cores,” says Konstandakos.

Modular commercial buildings

As mentioned previously, there is some activity in the modular market for commercial buildings, with the introduction of modular pod bathrooms to some of our newer structures.

“We’re seeing modular becoming more common in commercial builds where accuracy, quality and control of costs are paramount and where onsite disruption is to be kept to a minimum,” says Jan Gyrn, managing director at Modscape, a company dedicated to designing, building and delivering modular homes and commercial buildings across Australia.

“Greater appreciation of the industry and greater understanding of the design possibilities coupled with accelerated construction time, less waste and less site disruption is making prefabrication/modular more and more exciting and the industry will continue to evolve and grow.”

A stunning example of architectural merit in a modular structure is the Mirvac Display Suite at Melbourne’s Docklands.

Modscape collaborated with Mirvac’s marketing, design and construction teams on this project, with the aim of delivering an iconic sales and marketing suite to facilitate the sale of Mirvac’s residences and encapsulate the look and feel of the site’s wharfside heritage.

Unlike more traditional sales suite designs, the building demonstrates an ambitious architectural style through an ellipsoid-shaped modular form and a bespoke curtain wall glazing system that symbolises the wharf’s entrance and delivers unobstructed waterfront views. Consisting of four modular quadrants delivering 210sqm of space, the interior flows between open plan zones dedicated to 3D display models, simulated kitchen and bathroom areas, a reception, a multimedia room and staff amenities.

Metallic elements including a copper-clad media room and folded plate steel entrance are blended with a grey palette of leather and stone that gives reference to the residential aesthetic, while the inclusion of recycled wharf timber in the reception desk and external landscape totems pays homage to the wharf and its riverfront surrounds.

While modular buildings can sometimes get a bad rap due to their ‘boxy’ appearance, this project shows that we can move beyond this to create aesthetically pleasing, functional commercial spaces. Now the problem is addressing some of the fundamental issues mentioned on page xx to create a bigger market for modular commercial buildings. Indeed, it may be a while yet before we see modular being fully realised in the Australian market.  


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