Prefabricated building and off-site construction account for a small but growing slice of the construction and infrastructure industry in this country. Could this fast-developing sector represent a new area of opportunity and innovation for Australian manufacturers? By Carole Goldsmith.

The Australian construction industry contributes $150bn (10%) to this country’s GDP. Of this, the prefabricated housing sector provides just $4.6bn, or 3%, of the residential housing market, according to the Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce of Australia (META)’s Prefab Housing Hub. With an estimated total of 155,000 houses built in Australia each year, prefabricated houses – including kit and transportable – account for just 4,650 of these.

Shortened from “prefabrication”, prefab refers to any part of a building manufactured at a place other than its final location. PrefabAUS is the peak body for Australia’s off-site construction industry, with a diverse membership of almost 200 companies. PrefabAUS CEO Warren McGregor explains that the group’s members include manufacturers of prefabricated buildings, architects, building designers, other construction and supply chain professionals, affiliated industry associations and research groups.

“Around 50 % of our membership is in Victoria and with the downturn of the auto industry, some automotive engineers are finding opportunities in the prefab industry,” says McGregor. “One example of this is where a GM Holden auto-engineer now works in prefab manufacturing after a period at another of our member companies, the Hickory Group.”

The mining downturn has had a significant effect on some sections of the prefab industry, advises McGregor: “Accommodation camps known as dongas or portable modular buildings have long been used in the mining industry. Some of our members that supplied the mining industry are now turning their skills into other types of prefab manufacturing.”

McGregor has a diverse background, mainly in management consulting across Australia and South-East Asia and with a property focus for the past ten years. Most recently he has been consulting with Thinc Projects, and last year wrote an assessment of advances made in the prefab space entitled ‘The Changing Face and Place of Construction’.

In the report McGregor explains that prefabricated projects have been undertaken in Australia for a diverse range of projects, including: houses, low-rise apartment buildings, hotels, student accommodation, medical clinics, community halls and school buildings (not the portable classrooms of old), a variety of display suites for residential development, and even a RSPCA animal shelter. He cites examples such as: a McDonald’s restaurant manufactured by Prebuilt, based in Kilsyth, Victoria; and the new Mitcham Railway station, east of Melbourne, made by Modscape. Both companies are PrefabAUS members.

McGregor agrees that prefab or modular buildings need more exposure in Australia and the industry would like to see a prefab showcase centre.

“Preconstruction has made the industry global and you can buy an entire prefab hotel and ship it overseas,” he says. “Toyota is also a large producer of prefab houses. In Australia we are characterised by smaller innovative prefab firms, but the competition we are confronting here are often the big conglomerates overseas. The Victorian Government wants this state to be the prefab centre of excellence and this is part of its push for job creation. We can create a new type of factory job for people, including those currently working in the auto industry.”

ARC-CAMPH: Training future prefab industry leaders

A joint initiative project of PrefabAUS and the University of Melbourne, the ARC Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing (ARC-CAMPH), aims to grow Australia’s prefab building industry by creating sustainable training between the industry and Australian universities across the country. The Centre will train the next generation of engineers and scientists in advanced manufacturing practices in prefab modular buildings, with training at the universities involved and on-site at prefab manufacturers.

The University of Melbourne is leading the Centre’s forward charge with $4m in funding over four years, received from the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Centres Scheme, and $6m from the prefab industry. Associate Professor Tuan Ngo, Director of the University of Melbourne’s Advanced Protective Technologies for Engineering Structure, and the ARC Centre’s Research Director, spoke about the centre’s exciting future plans.

“The Centre will commence operations this November with an official launch early next year,” Dr Ngo explains. “We need to provide training facilities for around 30 people, including 14 PhD students, as well as prefab and construction industry engineers and other manufacturing professions.”

He adds that the other universities involved in the centre are the University of Sydney, Curtin University in Perth, and Monash University in Melbourne. Innovative design for manufacturing and assembly, off-site construction and prefabricated technologies training will also be conducted at their sites.

Among the training to be offered at University of Melbourne is: development of new lightweight building and sustainable building materials; new technologies to assist in faster construction; energy efficiency and zero carbon housing; innovative methods of reducing building life-cycle costs; and methods of recycling up to 80% of site waste.

Dr Ngo explains that as part of the PhD student’s training, they will work under prefab industry supervisors on-site.

“Also together with PrefabAUS, we will be offering advanced off-site modular construction short courses for prefab industry employees,” he adds. “We also collaborate with the Auto CRC to identify training needs of people working in the auto industry and upskill them for the construction field. Around 200 companies in the auto industry have been identified and this comprises around 230,000 people who will need retraining, when the major auto manufacturers close in 2017.”

Dr Ngo advises that his University’s Francis Smart Structural Laboratory will continue to provide a vital part of advanced manufacturing testing and training for PhD students and the prefab industry. On a tour of the laboratory, which is equipped with a range of building testing equipment, Dr Ngo points to a number of innovative products being developed with leading companies. These include pultruded lightweight composite framing and floor systems, as well as an ultra-lightweight cement-free concrete made of waste materials such as fly ash and slag. During the tour, two PhD students were testing coal ash material while another was checking material for earthquake resistance on the earthquake shaking table.

Dr Ngo adds: “If a prefab company wants to use the lab, contact PrefabAUS or the ARC CAMPH via its website, which will be active in November.”

Modscape: Custom-made prefab buildings

When PrefabAUS founding member Modscape first commenced business nine years ago, it had some set designs developed for potential residential customers. Founder/owner and Managing Director Jan Gyrn advises: “In response to customer demand, we quickly changed the process. We then started custom-designing and manufacturing our modular buildings to suit each individual customer in the residential and commercial sphere.”

All Modscape’s innovative prefab houses and commercial buildings are made using modules based on a fully welded structural steel frame that uses insulated panels to create a highly insulated cell. Based in Brooklyn, west of Melbourne, Modscape operates a design and construction office as well as factory where the modular buildings are manufactured. The company has 55 employees, with 20 office staff including architects, interior design and building professionals, and the rest working in the factory. Subcontractors such as electricians and plumbers are brought in when required. Around 40% of Modscape’s construction is in residential property and 60% in commercial buildings.

Gyrn provided AMT Magazine a tour of Modscape’s display suite and manufacturing site. Walking through the site, several construction workers were busily building the modules. Gyrn explains that a complete residential property takes just 12 weeks to produce within the factory, complete with electrical fittings and all plumbing. The modules are then transported by truck and the team are typically onsite for one week to connect to services.

A 36-module hospital for Shepparton, in regional Victoria, was also being constructed at the Modscape factory. Disabled bathrooms and toilets had already been installed in several of the modules during the tour.

“It will take 40 days on-site to install the hospital modules and connect the fittings, once the hospital is built at the factory,” adds Gyrn. “The building’s basement, lift shaft and fire stairs are now being built in parallel on-site.”

He describes two recent projects that his company is particularly proud of: “In collaboration with Mirvac’s marketing design and construction teams, we built the Mirvac residential display suite for Mirvac to sell all their apartments at Docklands in Melbourne. This took ten weeks in our factory to manufacture, one day to install and two weeks on site once we installed the modules.”

Unlike more traditional sales suite designs, the Mirvac building adopts an ambitious architectural style, with an ellipsoid-shaped modular form and a glass front that symbolises the wharf’s entrance and delivers unobstructed waterfront views.

“Another project is the Mitcham Private Hospital which was built over 14 weeks in our factory and it took two days to install. Then we worked six weeks on site connecting all the fittings such as power, plumbing and oxygen connections.”

Gyrn and his company pride themselves on sustainable building practices: “It is the way we build it, the design of what we build, the material we use, and how the building operates. By building in a factory, we can control the waste. Reconstituted recycled products are used such as aluminium windows frames, which can also be recycled at their end of life. LED lighting and double glazing is used in all of our modules. We see sustainability as reducing the impact on the environment.”

AIM: galvanised steel for infrastructure projects

Cairns-based Australian Infrastructure Manufacturing (AIM) manufactures high-volume galvanised steel products for infrastructure projects. It has ongoing contractual work for Queensland utility companies and the state’s Department of Transport and Main Roads. AIM also provides infrastructure products and services to utility companies in Western Australia (WA).

Manufacturing Manager Chris Wilson advises that the company’s founder Rod Pollard started the business in 1966 as a galvanising plant in Cairns. This plant moved to Townsville in 2010 because of a greater demand for galvanising there. The manufacturing division continued in Cairns, and AIM currently has 30 employees, with extra labour brought in when required. Every evening AIM transports its manufactured steel by B Double tandem trailers, to its parent company Australian Professional Galvanising in Townsville for galvanising.

Speaking about AIM’s infrastructure projects, Wilson explains: “As a regional supplier to Ergon Energy at five different Queensland sites – Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Maryborough and Toowoomba – we produce Power Beams or pole nails for electricity poles. AIM is a Queensland Government quality assured supplier.

AIM owns the IP on the Power Beam pole nails, which are manufactured at its Cairns factory. On site, the power nails are hammered into the ground beside the electricity pole and this forms a pole splint. The Power Beams can extend the life of a damaged electricity pole by up to 20 years. AIM has sold them into New Zealand and the USA, and plans to export more in the future.

Wilson says proudly: “In 2013, AIM manufactured and transported Power Beam pole nails to Esperence in WA, and these were installed in remote south-west WA by Misand Holdings. Our high-volume capability allowed us to produce and deliver in excess of 5,000 units in a 16-month timeframe. Misand Holdings was able to install 30 Power Beams per day, completing the contract six months ahead of schedule.”

In the same year AIM also produced and delivered 184 tons of galvanised steel for the Laura River South Bridge project in Cape York Peninsula. The cambered (slightly arched) beams produced for the project enabled bridge spans of more than 30m.

Wilson explains that the company’s manufacturing capability includes a 6.1m, 500-ton five-axis CNC press, 21 MIG welders, thread cutting machines, section rollers, centre lathe and a radial drill, as well as several overhead gantries for lifting and handling. Among the ongoing products AIM provides to the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Transport as well as road construction companies are: galvanised steel road lighting poles; truss bridges; rolled steel girders; bridge traffic and balustrade rails. All of these are compliant for AS 7,000 and AS 4680 (the Australian standard for hot dip galvanising).

When asked how the company is going, Wilson says: “Business is steady and if we can pull a couple of extra small contracts, we will have the best quarter since 2014.”