It’s been said that all industry disruptors are innovators, but not all innovators are disruptive. With prefabricated construction, the question of whether this 21st century process has truly shaken up Australia’s building industry is one with no clear answer.

On the one hand, there has been a growing buzz around prefab design – the umbrella term given to any structural, architectural or service elements that are fabricated offsite in a factory. Some call it pre-built construction, others off-site construction. Then there’s modular construction, where individual prefab units are connected and built up to form an overall structure.

“Prefab is becoming extremely popular in Australia, with many large and smaller builders, suppliers and tradesmen embracing prefab in hundreds of different formats,” says Andrew Grimshaw, director of SBS Group.

“It gives builders and designers a completely different scope to create complex or simple structures off-site, which can be quickly brought to the work site and installed.

“This saves valuable time, labour and total overall efficiency compared with traditional methods of construction. Utilising many different materials with smart engineering and construction techniques adds a vastly superior edge to today’s construction requirements.

“Whether its prefabricating steel framing or prefabricating kitchens or even plumbing piping, prefabrication is growing as the ideas flow forth.”

One of the biggest spaces where prefab is geared to make a lasting impact is in the multi-residential sector. With rapidly growing populations in our major cities and ongoing housing shortages, many prefab proponents argue that constructing multi-residences off-site is the answer, as it would offer both reduced build times and enhanced economic value.

PrefabAUS, the peak prefab body in Australia, predicted that more than 10 percent of new homes in the country could be prefabs within a decade – a shift that would have considerable cost savings for developers and homebuyers.

And we have the goods to make a strong case, too. In 2017, a 44-storey apartment tower in Melbourne broke the record as Australia’s tallest prefab building. Designed by Rothelowman and developed by Longriver Investments, the La Trobe Tower was built by Hickory Group using its modular delivery model, Hickory Building Systems (HBS).

According to Hickory Group, employing HBS allowed the project to be completed in just 19 months as opposed to 26 months. Parallel track construction – whereby on- and off-site construction programmes were “accelerated with careful planning and prototyping, providing speed and certainty in meeting timelines” – was largely responsible for this 30 percent improvement in delivery time.

In other words, the structure could be fabricated to final completion even as on-site preparation and foundations were being laid. 

Hickory is not the only one tapping into prefab technologies locally. Companies such as XLam, the cross-laminated timber (CLT) manufacturer that provides timber panels to several projects on both sides of the Tasman, as well as SBS Group, which prefabricates light gauge steel frames, are just two more such players in Australia’s blossoming prefab industry. 

 “If we look at a traditional build being constructed over 12 months, you might do four or five months of preparatory planning before starting to engage the builder. You might then continue to make changes to the building right up to the seven-month mark, before you finish the building off until the 12 months is out,” he explains.

“With prefab it’s actually six months of designing, and then delivering the building within 3 months. So you’re actually saving 3 months, but you’ve got to do a lot more preparatory and design work at the front end.

“Prefab systems need to have a flipped way of engaging with all the people along the value chain.”

You can read the full version of this article in the January-February edition of Infolink | BPN.