Building Disruptor

Prefab and modular construction is nothing new in Australia having been active in a few different forms throughout the country for many years now and while there is still a perception or stigma attached of modular being for low cost housing it would pay for the industry in general to take note of the changes happening in this space. Modular construction is here to stay and gaining the momentum to make the disruptive changes that could have positive compound effects for future generations.

While modular still represents less than 5% of Australia’s Construction industry, there is a pleasant noise starting to be heard and a shift on the building frontier that has the potential to provide significant benefits to the industry. As we’ve witnessed before our eyes with the pace of global technology changes over the past decade, there are a few clues the construction industry could take note from Goliaths such as Nokia, Kodak and Blockbusters that fell from grace after never seeing, or choosing not to see, what was coming from right under their noses. The one constant in our world is change and that happens faster now than ever, so while there is the element of our industry that chooses to perceive modular as a small niche for cheap housing, some attention should be given to the trends and data as that can’t be ignored.

There are hotels, hospitals, commercial office towers, multi-storey apartments and community centres now being built by modular in all corners of the country, and many of these buildings now have the 5 star ratings and architectural glamour with finishes and designs often seen in traditional construction using natural timber floors, natural stone finishes, composite cladding systems as well as full length terraces and balconies that were never on offer with the early types of modular buildings in Australia. So why then is modular a potential disruptor for the construction industry?

· Time – we all need more but it remains an undervalued commodity. What modular provides is faster construction times and this is the primary driver of reducing cost in modular construction over traditional construction methods. Having spent time with various players in this space over the past 12 months the resounding facts are constructing in a controlled environment provide numerous efficiencies over onsite conditions. This in turn provides opportunities for material suppliers and decision makers to look at innovative techniques and products that enhance the building process. The flow on effect of driving innovation in Australia has a multitude of benefits for industry and the economy, and having seen how modular builders are changing their outlook on building techniques to keep enhancing efficiencies, this has opened the periphery vision towards innovative products that support cost reduction. Recent work Gripset has carried out with some of the country's largest commercial modular builders is a prime example of how innovative techniques and products are driving greater efficiencies, where our Gripset GC system has enabled their modular wet areas to be waterproofed and flood tested in less than 30% of the time needed with the liquid membrane system previously being used. The net result of a superior waterproofing system, longer warranty and rapid time benefits is one example of how modular is winning with innovation.

· Reduced labour requirements and weather delays – in commercial construction these are often key factors behind a blow out of costs. Reduced labour is a direct cost saving and modular can use labour in ways to optimise the completion of processes with greater efficiency. Having had the wet winter just experienced this year through many states, a significant loss of days has delayed various stages for trades which comes at a cost. With modular being processed in factory environments these processes are not in the hands of the weather Gods and so forecasting is far more accurate and closer to budget.

· Improved construction quality – compared to quality control that can be monitored on building sites, in a controlled factory environment there is greater ability to push for improved quality that will ultimately reduce building defects. The net win here is better quality construction while reducing current and future costs.

· Improved sustainability and environmental impacts – with the use of more efficient techniques, innovative processes and smarter use of materials, the modular building method starts to really improvise an attainable green approach to building. Less waste is a notable observation in factories where modular building takes place compared to what is found on site, as these types of environments can command a more practical approach on how waste is managed. With future land fill challenges and the expectations of a greater concerted effort towards green building, modular does enable the industry to demonstrate an eco-approach.

· Enhances worker safety and productivity – Australia is one of the leading nations when it comes to our approach to worker safety and we’ve made significant inroads in this area over the past few decades, however the risk is always there for worker safety on site. Factories aren’t free of risk to workers, quite the contrary, however once again in a controlled environment managing safety risk has less challenges than on site demands due to the elimination of external risks that open environment building sites often present. Having looked at data from the US and Europe on worker safety in prefab/modular building industries, the numbers of incidents and accidents are far less compared to those reported on building sites.

These are some of the obvious benefits for modular that have been noted to date, and taking into consideration that technology is continuously improving the processes in this space, modular and prefab construction are being taken to new levels in up market building developments that a few years ago were never thought possible. I’m guessing in a few years from now, the market may look at prefab and modular construction in a different light than it currently does.

While the door on the Australian automotive industry shuts with vehicle manufacturing being no more beyond 2017, the opportunity is primed for modular construction companies in Australia to gain the best of experienced manufacturing experts from the automotive industry that can help drive greater innovation, reduce costs and a deliver a more affordable high quality product. This is a unique opportunity for Australia and opens a discussion for greater supply chain efficiencies around the country that could propel modular to a new level to meet the housing needs and time demands for a growing population.

Exciting times for those involved in modular and prefab building with opportunities abound for those that want them. Will modular disrupt the industry? Let’s watch this space……..