When it comes to building materials, the latest developments increasingly revolve around prefabrication and modular building technologies. this also includes the use of innovative materials, unique construction methods and the latest in sustainable ideas.

Kate Harris, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), says it would be fantastic to have more prefabricated construction that incorporates insulation better than we have done in the past. 

“We haven’t done insulation well in Australia, whether for hot or cold [temperatures]. Modular construction, which is quick and efficient, needs to also have a longer-term economics around insulation and energy use as a cost associated with that built form,” says Harris.

One recent example of insulation in a modular build done right is the 133-metre, 44-level residential La Trobe Tower in Melbourne, completed in November 2016. 

Designed by Rothelowman and constructed by Hickory Group, it was at the time of writing Australia’s tallest prefabricated building.

Hickory’s system used an engineered concrete floor, structural steel columns, integrated bathroom pods and a building façade that were all constructed off-site. 

The manufacturing process and interchangeable componentry lead to a more consistent product with less waste and faster completion times. This additionally sped up the returnon-investment, according to Hickory Group joint managing director, Michael Argyrou.

Another example is the prefabricated construction system from Unitised Building (UB), a building technology group that applies technology by architect Nonda Katsalidis for low-, medium- and high-rise residential. Steel is used as the basis of this system because it is lightweight and can incorporate recycled materials, and can be recycled itself. 

There are no set room sizes, module heights or widths.

Rather, the system follows project-specific architectural design features, which UB believes is the factor that most differentiates it from other competing modular or pre-fabrication technologies. 

Delivery is still around half the time of traditional construction methods. 

While recognising that, like any new technology, this new building system could take a while to catch on, Katsalidis is quietly confident that UB’s approach is “the way of the future”. 

Chris Barnett, Habitech Systems’ managing director, says it’s a good time to be cautiously upbeat.
“Off-site manufacturing will continue to gain traction in the multi-residential sector, with the quality and time benefits providing immediate gains to both the developer and the public.” 

Habitech’s manufactured building components are delivered to site in a flat-pack format, which fit together fast and efficiently to get a weathertight and secure house.

Barnett is also confident that the growth of panelised systems in multi-residential construction will improve the thermal performance and reliability of the resulting homes. 

The modules from another prefabricated housing system manufacturer, Mode, can be transported within standard load restrictions before they fold out on-site to nearly three times that size. 

When installed, all water from the roof runs off into water tanks, recycled materials are preferred, and so are double-glazed windows. The homes are promoted as being 8-star energy rated, and it’s claimed that no waste is produced on-site.  

Mode Homes attributes much of its sustainability approach to a collaboration between UNSW and the national research and innovation hub, the CRC for Low Carbon Living. 

As well as further refining these fold-out homes for different climactic conditions, the CRC is looking at “repeatable and transportable framing solutions”; “improving existing Pod designs”; at “inter/intra‐modular structural connections”.

They are also looking at the benefits of cool roofs on the thermal performance of large footprint buildings.

In global terms and as a nation, Australia has some ways to go in terms of industry uptake of modular and/or prefabricated modular multi-residential builds.

For example, Sweden’s prefabricated housing market share is 30 percent, while Habitech’s Barnett forecasts a 10 percent share of Australia’s general housing market will occur sometime during the next 10 years. 

Timber’s structural possibilities continue to grow. Just recently, the University of British Columbia’s Brock Commons student residence was opened in Vancouver—now the world’s tallest wood building at 18 storeys or 53 metres.

However, it’s wood’s inherent qualities that continue to fascinate designers and builders alike.

For instance, professor Achim Menges, an architect and director at the Institute for Computational Design at Stuttgart University, has explored the innate movement of timber veneer through exposure to humidity and moisture. 

Menges has created a veneer composite system that bends and straightens in response to the surrounding humidity. 

His projects use western European-sourced maple and pine. Just how much of this research is applicable to Australia is open for debate.

UNSW computational design student, Jeremy Coronel, has tested locally-sourced timber veneers – hardwoods Blackbutt, Tasmanian Oak and Spotted Gum, and softwoods Radiata Pine, Hoop Pine and Cypress – at varying moisture intolerant layer thicknesses. The results have shown the possibility of implementing the Menges design process with Australian timber.  

Nature also comes into its own. Researchers from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have proposed the use of organic materials such as bones, shells and sea sponges to bind concrete aggregate. 

A team from the University of Technology Sydney is developing a prototype algae panel to power buildings, with “the potential to provide biomass and thus biofuel to meet some of the energy needs of buildings,” says team member and associate professor, Sara Wilkinson. 

At the end of the day, new building materials will over time make their mark in the building industry by making builds quicker and cheaper. 

With housing affordability such a hot button issue nowadays, it is easy to forget that without these new building materials and technologies, there would be no shelter, regardless of the price some people would be willing to pay.