Warren McGregor is the CEO of PrefabAUS. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us about PrefabAUS, how it was established, and what its objectives are.

Warren McGregor: PrefabAUS is Australia’s peak body for offsite construction. I understand it came about as a result of a Future Proofing Schools Round Table Session in June 2012 when 54 delegates from manufacturing, architecture, government infrastructure, and university research teams explored the future of prefabrication for the education sector. The round table was part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant. One core resolution that emerged from the Round Table Session was the need for a peak body for Australia’s prefabricated building industry to support collaboration, innovation and quality information sharing. PrefabAUS came into being in 2013.

Enshrined in the PrefabAUS constitution is the primary objective to represent, showcase and advance Australia’s prefabricated building industry through collaboration, innovation and education. As part of this, PrefabAUS seeks to explore and address barriers to the uptake of building prefabrication, encourage research, increase Government and wider community awareness and understanding of offsite construction, and facilitate industry networking.


AMT: What is your membership made up of?

WM: In just our third year, membership is now well over 200 and continues to grow solidly. PrefabAUS members include manufacturers of prefabricated buildings and modules, flat packs, bathroom pods and sub-assemblies, as well as component suppliers, architects, engineers and other technical consultants, project managers, builders, clients, allied industry associations, government and academic researchers. That breadth of membership reflects the multi-disciplinary interest in prefabrication. It is also vital to achieving meaningful take-up of offsite construction, since all the elements of the project team need to be on-board with the decision to adopt prefabrication as well as in its execution so that the potential benefits on offer can be realised on the project.

Offsite construction can range from traditional materials and trades with the final destination being different to the work site right through to highly sophisticated manufacturing lines. Increasingly we are seeing a wider range of prefabricated components and sub-assemblies being offered. These include wiring systems, services shafts and automated manufacturing of precision building panels, which can be readily assembled on site into the complete building.


AMT: What kind of activities does PrefabAUS engage in on behalf of its members?

WM: Providing forums for our members to connect, such as networking events around Australia, often with a series of quick-fire presentations from members and others on different topics. Last year PrefabAUS hosted a national speaking tour for Amy Marks, a prefabrication expert from the US.

We have also been successful in increasing government awareness and interest in prefabrication and offsite construction, for example in the lead-up discussions to the Victorian Government’s Construction Technologies Sector Strategy, released earlier this year.

PrefabAUS also seeks to foster research and education relevant to the industry. At present PrefabAUS is an industry partner to two Australian Research Council programs. One is the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Council (IMCRC), for which AMTIL is also an industry partner organisation. The other is the Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing (CAMP.H) being co-ordinated by the University of Melbourne.

Our feature event each year is the PrefabAUS annual conference, which is held over three days including a site visit day. We’re very pleased that this conference has become Australasia’s premier conference for the prefabrication and offsite construction industry. This year our conference will be held in Sydney from 10-12 October and will feature international and local speakers, site visits and workshops and discussion panels. Our Conference theme this year is “Delivering Next Generation Buildings”. We are fortunate to have secured Ryan Smith from the University of Utah as our international keynote speaker.


AMT: Prefabricated construction seems to be enjoying real growth at the moment. What factors are driving that trend?

WM: There is a mixture of factors at play that together are creating real momentum. Reducing the construction time on site can be a major factor, and is particularly relevant for remote sites or those with difficult access or sensitive activities nearby such as a hospital. Enabling technologies such as BIM (building informational modelling or management), digital collaboration platforms to handle all the detailed digital project drawings, design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) and Lean construction have been important facilitators by streamlining processes and providing greater assurance that elements of a project constructed at different locations come together on site as intended.

Restrictions around design for offsite construction are being rapidly broken down, with very impressive design outcomes now being achieved in residential, educational and healthcare applications. The growing installed base of projects has been important in building awareness and understanding of what offsite construction can offer and expanding the number of project teams becoming experienced in undertaking these projects. Large builders like Lend Lease and Frasers Property (previously Australand) are adopting offsite construction. And Mirvac has been the builder partner for the CSR Velocity closed panel system.

On the government side, the UK government has committed £22m to seed fund a manufacturing hub to produce 10,000 prefabricated homes, while Singapore is promoting prefabrication and bathroom pods as part of its national construction productivity strategy, including mandating bathroom pods in apartment projects. Heightened awareness of the importance of sustainability through reduced waste overall and especially at site has been a motivator for many of our members, especially from the architectural fraternity. More broadly, commonly cited advantages of prefabrication include: shorter program times; increased construction precision; reduced defects/rectification works; reduced site disruption; factory not affected by adverse weather; reduced materials wastage; and improved worker safety.


AMT: With Australian manufacturing undergoing a period of transition, what sort of opportunities does prefab offer for manufacturing companies seeking to diversify?

WM: We have seen instances of manufacturing skills being successfully transitioned into construction where firms are adopting manufacturing processes and thinking for volume production of building modules and bathroom pods – fully-fitted bathrooms manufactured in a factory and delivered to site as a complete unit ready for rapid installation and connection to services. For example, a student accommodation project can require 600 bathrooms pods. In Europe it is now commonplace for all the major hotel chains to have their bathrooms factory-built for quality, adherence to corporate brand standards and faster project completion on site.

With the demise of Australia’s automotive manufacturing industry, I am aware of two well established Australian auto component manufacturers who have specifically identified building products as an area of opportunity (and there may well be more). One has already utilised its extensive materials knowledge and manufacturing skills to develop some new products for the construction sector to demonstrate its capabilities.


AMT: What would your advice be to an Australian manufacturing company hoping to seize those opportunities?

WM: Like any new endeavour, the most important thing to my mind is to access practical expertise in the target field (in this case construction) to become familiar with the issues, practices, help identify the opportunities, and then to work through the (usually) not insignificant obstacles to the introduction of new products and processes. Collaboration is a PrefabAUS catchcry for players within our industry and I think it applies at least as much to those looking to engage with the industry from outside.

I would also suggest interested firms explore the Victorian Government’s Construction Technologies Sector Strategy and the companion co-funding packages available as part of the Victorian government’s Future Industries Fund as they apply to the construction sector. While Victorian firms must be involved, these initiatives do not preclude the involvement of non-Victorian businesses.


AMT: What’s your professional background, and how did you come to your role with the PrefabAUS?

WM: Property has been my focus for the past 10 years or so, in a variety of forms including development projects, advisory roles, property funds management, and as research director with a major national valuation and advisory firm. Prior to that I worked in investment banking/treasury and with KPMG’s management consulting businesses in Australia and Indonesia. I was fortunate to have 10 very interesting years living and working in South-East Asia, mainly Indonesia. During that time I was also a partner in an international executive search firm, at time when demand for country head and regional executives was very strong as the South-east Asia regional economies experienced exciting growth and new industries sprouted up.

My interest in prefabrication dates back to 2010 when I first considered modular options for an apartment development, and was reignited in 2014 when I undertook a review of the many advances being made in offsite construction. This introduced me to the leading players in the industry and led to me attending the inaugural PrefabAUS Conference in 2014.

My role with PrefabAUS stems from that exposure to the industry and the PrefabAUS directors – my ‘reward’ for my demonstrated interest in the prefabrication and offsite construction area. To round out my answer, I should mention that review was on behalf of Thinc Projects – now Turner & Townsend Thinc – where I was part of the project advisory team. Like me, the firm believes it is important that clients are aware of the state of play with offsite construction in order to make the most informed decisions about their projects. This advisory role is ongoing as my position with PrefabAUS is a part-time one. This pair of roles provides me with a nice mix of exposure to the offsite construction industry and the PrefabAUS organisation as well as very practical, project-specific involvement. I have Economics (Honours), Accounting, and Applied Finance qualifications.


AMT: What might an ordinary working day entail?

WM: Being a small, not-for-profit organisation, my role encompasses the behind-the-scenes operation of a membership organisation (such as new members, accounting and communications) as well as the more interesting member engagement aspects. Fielding enquiries from prospective and existing members is another part of my role and is a valuable way to hear about developments and new players in the industry. Another element involves liaising with the non-executive board directors, especially around the time of our board meetings, as well as my Kiwi counterpart at PrefabNZ and  the Modular Building Institute in the USA with whom we formed a strategic alliance this year. And like all of us, there seems to be an ever-increasing number of emails to attend to. I am also a contributor to the Sourceable.net digital publishing platform for construction.

Reflecting the growing awareness and interest in prefabrication and offsite construction, I take up invitations to present at conferences arranged by other organisations as they provide excellent opportunities to increase awareness and interest outside of our immediate industry and to promote PrefabAUS. Right now I’m in full swing with our conference team organising our third annual conference which will be in October in Sydney, as well as drafting the PrefabAUS financial statements for 2015-16.