This long read features industry leaders’ experiences with offsite construction and Australia’s boom in engineered timbers.
Over two days, Frame Australia 2018 brought together many of the world’s premier names in engineered timber construction to inform and educate the audience. That concentration of expertise provided an opportunity to connect building industry leaders with solutions and technologies that will solve problems, expand possibilities and control budgets now and in the future. Here are some of the lessons we learned.
Monday morning’s sessions were framed as a leap straight into the details of mass timber production, but the session chair’s opening comments took a slightly sideways step into visionary economics. Robert Pradolin of WoodSolutions made the ambitious statement that it is in the economic interests of Australia to house everyone, even people who are priced out of the market. He proposed a build-to-rent scheme that may have government support or may be driven by the private sector.
“Once we price carbon, it becomes even more economical,” he said, setting a goal for what timber construction can accomplish that resonated throughout the conference.
Nick Milestone from William Hare Ltd in the UK followed, outlining what he described as the evolution and future of mass timber. Milestone’s talk included vital takeaways such as the extreme usefulness of TRADA technical publications (many free with online registration, or all free with membership).
He shared the despair and joy of their work on the University of Nottingham’s GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry, which were two-thirds complete when an electrical fault saw them completely destroyed by fire. “It’s the only time I’ll be able to work on a great project twice,” Milestone said.
He described how the economic challenges of Brexit represented a great opportunity for mass timber, as a loss of workers meant offsite construction was now even more economical. Among the multiple projects used to illustrate his talk, The Cube Building at Banyan Wharf, London, was a standout. Milestone called it a great example of using Building Information Management (BIM) well, and described how the timber panels were encapsulated in Class 0 materials, meaning fire can’t move through the building. Five men took 30 weeks to assemble the 10-storey, 6750m2 structure on site, minimising disruption in the busy location.
As Milestone emphasised throughout his talk, the materials cost of offsite building might be higher, but the speed of construction and minimal labour alone make it economical. He finished with a challenge to the industry to look for both more places to encourage timber construction, mentioning how well it integrates with light gauge steel, and more ways to promote timber through the media and other avenues.
Jochen Ristig from AECOM and Simon Xiberras from Strongbuild Commercial rounded out the first session with discussions of major projects their organisations had overseen. Xiberras introduced the term Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) to the conference, expanding on the value of having suppliers such as fabricators and builders involved in the early planning stages or a project, where they and the design team can share information on the possibilities and limitations of products, the design and the building process. ECI looks for solutions in the first planning stages, rather than waiting until the project is underway, saving time, money and stress overall.
Xiberras said that ECI not only cuts back costly late redesigns, it builds strong bonds between the team members and the client, thanks to the transparency and problem-solving nature of the relationship.
The second Monday morning session was at once inspiring and frustrating, as each speaker elucidated the enormous potential of new technologies in the industry, at the same time as sounding caveats about incompatible proprietary systems in wide use and a lack of regulatory frameworks or and government support to speed up tech standardisation and adoption.
Perry Forsythe, Professor of Construction Management at the University of Technology Sydney, began by explaining how the old 3D model of a project had been superseded. Now models add 4D, time. And, 5D, cost – often broken down over time so all stakeholders can see what is needed at which point. And even 6D, where the finished asset becomes a part of the model itself, including the BIM, the possibilities for building and materials repurposing and the eventual deconstruction.
This level of data isn’t just for new structures. Forsythe described how drones and Zebedee lidar scanners could capture data through laser mapping to create highly detailed and accurate models of existing buildings that can be used for refurbishment or to produce a BIM model. This library of a building’s elements and components is more than useful to the building itself, it can be duplicated and dropped into – or subtly adapted for – another building’s plan, saving immense amounts of duplicated effort.
Forsythe spoke of human error, and the potential to minimise it through 3D model clash detection, where, for example, wiring, plumbing and ducting models can be layered and virtually ‘built’, and spots where two objects are trying to exist in the same space on the plans can be corrected in the early stages of design.
There was a palpable excitement in the room when Forsythe described the potential of augmented reality technology in building. Using HoloLens mixed reality glasses, workers can ‘see’ the finished product before they install it, and building inspectors can check the reality of a build against its model with enormous accuracy.
While the recent Brock Commons Tallwood House build in Canada wasn’t quite at the HoloLens stage, Forsythe spoke of its very detailed Revit designs that were simplified and supplied to contractors and workers at each stage of the build, showing them what each day’s work would be. This intelligent use of data and design focused on the processes of manufacture and assembly is vitally important, he said, calling it a step towards Industry 4.0.
Next up, Katie Fowden’s insight into Hyne Timber’s bidding process for the Maryborough Fire Station redevelopment was constrained by commercial in-confidence agreements with the Queensland government. So instead of showing models for the building, she described Hyne’s novel way of acquiring the business.
“Having the timber supplier as the project lead was backwards to usual,” Fowden said. But Hyne’s early involvement meant they had a chance to guide and learn throughout the process, and it included very clever pitching ideas, such as gaining the attention of the government body awarding the contract with a presentation in the form of a TV news feature.
Their decision to include BIM in the project not only put Hyne ahead of the 2023 mandated deadline for BIM in all major state infrastructure, it also provided the impetus to give all their products BIM values that can be downloaded by anyone and put straight into Revit. So while Fowden could only talk around the building itself, the story she had to tell showed other manufacturers what could be achieved with a plan and a will.
Inigo Krieg of Homag/Weinmann Germany completed the set of speakers in this session. He reiterated the value of BIM, especially coupled with technologies such as RFD tags that can track every panel from factory to installation, and emphasised the necessity to share data among all stakeholders in a project.
The Q&A session that followed showed the strong engagement of the audience with this topic, with Forsythe emphasising that the industry will get the most from technology by building vertically integrated partnerships that will be motivated to reap benefits over time. Issues with a lack of training opportunities in Australia and a limited number of experts in this fast-developing field were also covered.
If Monday morning was about the possibility of timber construction, Monday afternoon was about the actualities.
David Heath, National Technical Manager of the ARC Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing (CAMPH), spoke with verve about the centre’s focus on training advanced personnel. Partnering with industry, and with graduate students spending time on the factory floor, CAMPH’s philosophy guarantees their research projects have real-world applications.
He pointed out that of the three most promising areas for development in the industry, only two – advanced building systems and high-performance materials – were really being supported. The third, supply chain and financing innovation, remains largely unaddressed.
Martin Smith of Modular Building Automation UK laid out the physical realities of the future. As fewer skilled labourers become available, automation is the only solution, but it brings with it a fresh set of issues in problems of scale and of being able to oversee detail at scale.
He agreed with previous speakers on the benefits of meticulous data collection and the possibilities of what he called the ‘augmented worker’ using digital tools to direct or check work, especially for precise trades such as plumbing and perhaps electrical.
Smith sounded a word of caution that people shouldn’t be seduced by the glamour of technology. Too much investment in automation too soon can be detrimental to both productivity and budget, and even in a highly automated plant, people remain valuable in what they bring to the process.
Charlie Hutchings and Sam Rowe of Hundegger rounded out the session with an entertaining overview of robotics in the timber sector, before the panel was joined by Ryan Slater of Homag/Weinmann and Nick Hewson of XLam Australia for the discussion panel, with session chair Professor Rob Wakefield, Head of RMIT’s School of Property, Construction and Project Management.
Hewson issued a challenge for the audience to get out on site when possible so they can see the production and construction processes for themselves, understanding being the key to better delivery. All spoke of issues with information transfer. “We throw out 80% of the drawings we get,” said Hewson, “because they’re just not accurate to the tolerances we need.”
The panel called for industry to pressure developers for standardisation in software languages – in much the same way standards work across different brands for digital music and video – so data won’t be lost in transfers. They also encouraged building designers to leave elements such as connection detail to the manufacturer/builder where practicable, for more efficiencies.
The weaknesses in the system were mostly identified as being at the site end of the process. While some manufacturers struggle to make volume, far more problems arise when delivery dates are pushed out.
“It can take a month to get files ready for production,” said Slater. If a job is delayed due to site works taking longer than expected, the next project is rarely ready to roll. And if the delay comes at the end of the manufacture, the problem of storage arises. Slater made the point that companies need to decide if they are selling timber or time. He said that XLam contracts make it clear the client is buying a production spot.
The final Monday session continued this practical focus. With Andrew Dunn of the Timber Development Association (TDA) giving a wrap-up of mass timber projects in Australia and the cost savings achieved in them. He lauded the production of generic cost plans by several major players in the industry internationally, including WoodSolutions, and encouraged Australia to look at mid-rise construction as the next market for a boom in offsite construction.
Dunn was followed by Philipp Zumbrunnen of UK-based EUrban (with a silent ‘E’, we learned), who developed some of the lessons from the morning session. In the early days, EUrban worked with a team trying to introduce CLT to the UK market, but who could design it? Who could build it? So EUrban did the lot and continues to do so, providing a full design service and then working with a range of trusted suppliers – whose products they can select from on a best-for-project basis – and their own assembly team.
While such an investment in the entire process was and remains a risk, it gives EUrban great quality management and a peerless insight into what works, and where industry could do better.
In terms of best practice, Zumbrunnen emphasised the importance of BIM and DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly), two core elements of their practice. He said that 1 euro spent on BIM at the design stage delivered 20 euros worth of value at the assembly stage and 60 euros worth of savings in operations – the ‘BIM, Bam, Boom!’ concept. As for DfMA, it is a concept natural to timber manufacturers. We’ve spent centuries reusing timber products and using a closed loop model that considers the building’s afterlife.
Zumbrunnen said that early planning is where the savings are made and spoke of how the EUrban teams were educating developers to get them involved from the concept stages so they could find areas for budgetary savings all the way through the design and construction processes.
Three practical tips brought nods from the audience. The first was that they operate across Europe, so they have multiple offices, which means staff from diverse countries can work near their homes or have the option to move for experience. While that can be harder with Australia’s smaller population, our large land mass makes it something worth thinking about.
The second was that for all the technology used in their processes, they hand drawings out to the people on the ground, because if you drop a drawing on site, it doesn’t break. Their final, enormously complex model is split into simple storyboards that can be provided to end users based on what each team needs to deliver and what needs to be delivered on which dates.
The last and most important point he shared was, “If you pay them, listen to them.” Specialist staff and contractors are there for a reason and we should be getting all the benefits of their input.
Last speaker in this session was Rob De Brincat of Atelier Projects. His practicality was laced with a little world-weariness, as he opened with a confession that he – like many in the audience –had found the construction industry resistant to change.
But even as he spoke, his straightforward approach made it clear that innovation was just common sense. On the one hand, new technologies were the only way the industry could stay economical, and on the other hand, a boom in major infrastructure projects around the country will continue to create shortages of structural materials and labourers for some years to come. There simply isn’t enough concrete to build all the tunnels and all the buildings, he told the audience, so engineered and light timber has an opportunity to step up.
De Brincat recapped three recent and current projects, with a focus on the Adina Hotel project at 55 Southbank, a 220-room vertical hotel extension. The clever use of a two-storey steel and concrete transfer between the existing building and a 10-storey CLT section has meant that no-one has had to move out of the original building while construction continues, saving enormous disruption and cost.
The build has been split into parts to allow follow-up trades early access to completed zones and speed completion. That the parts have been packed correctly, shipped in the correct order and transported to a defined timetable has been essential to the success of the project, as has ECI: elements that formed part of the detailed Q&A discussion that followed the session.
After a relaxed drinks and networking end to Monday, Tuesday morning saw four project panel sessions discussing major offsite construction builds. For each panel, key members of the design and construction teams for each project were on hand to describe their experiences and, as the jargon has it, ‘learnings’.
The first project was the DHHS three- and four-storey affordable housing at Stokes and Penola streets in Preston, Victoria. The job faced logistical difficulties with the two sites for the 68 apartments hemmed in by existing houses at the side and back.
The discussion covered the detailed but constrained requirements for the buildings, where budgetary constraints mixed with a need for safe, healthy housing.
Craig Kay from Tilling Smartstruct outlined the ways in which their material choices fulfilled several of the design criteria. TecBeam engineered timber joists supporting MaxiFloor flooring and timber stud walls have created the best combination of cost efficiency, swift build time, carbon neutrality and ease of fittings for services.
The large holes within the steel web of TecBeam mean that services can be installed directly into the floor cavity without additional drilling, while the inherent stiffness of the product has allowed for long spans without supports. Additionally, it has excellent acoustic properties to help minimise the downsides of close-quarter living.
The second panel concerned the Phoenix six-storey apartments project at Rouse and Cudgegon roads, Rouse Hill NSW. Here, all members of the panel spoke very highly of each other’s work, so it came as no surprise when David Bylund of LVL suppliers Wesbeam Tall Timber Building Systems used his panel time to discuss of the enormous value of relationship building between the teams on tall timber projects.
The close communication between design, construction, manufacturing and other teams on this project meant they were all able to come together when unexpected issues arose, specifically one with assemblage, and solve it effectively without creating knock-on problems.
Shane Strong from Strongbuild spoke to the things that worked well, including ECI, assistance from WoodSolutions, the product from Wesbeam and the fasteners from Simpson Strong-Tie, as well as the quality of the pre-finished walls and bathroom pods they supplied. He also mentioned things that hadn’t quite worked this time, such as having windows and doors ready in time for prefabrication, but how they were able to revisit their plan to still deliver the build to schedule and at a $1.5 million saving on traditional methods.
The third project looked at was the High Street five-storey apartments project at 752 High St, Thornbury Vic. This was another case where close collaboration led to better results and broadened horizons for those involved. Architect Paul Gardiner said the project brought up a range of new experiences for him, from working to find a team that could clad the panels in brick, to selecting a crane that could work on the constrained site.
He spoke of the benefits of working with WoodSolutions, and WoodSolution’s Paolo Lavisci returned the compliment, describing how the willingness of the architect and contractors to invest time in looking at options and listening and learning along the way had delivered beyond expectations. The build has informed several new WoodSolutions publications, including a mid-rise structure engineering guide.
Alistair Holmes, director of builder Sinjen Group, described how prefabrication has made life safer for his employees, as panels are lifted into place from the loading bay, removing the need to erect scaffolding and minimising risk.
Last of all was the Adina Hotel extension at 55 Southbank Blvd in Melbourne, which carried on from the discussion of the building on Monday afternoon. Here the questions proved even more intriguing than the presentation, as discussion over the difficulties of arising from intellectual property with respect to models arose.
Some architects were described as loath to share their models, both for reasons of copyright and concern with subsequent liability. Julian Anderson of Bates Smart, the Adina architect, accepted that architects were in a transition phase where many were nervous about working in a 3D space as a basis for shop drawings, on top of legal and insurance worries.
However, since the industry definitely looked to be moving that way, he suggested that now was the time for architects to both start costing modelling and to accept they will need to begin providing something that is 80-90% there, and that subcontractors will refine it.
Nathan Bendbow from Vistek Engineers thought the issue was unlikely to be resolved quickly unless it is regulated or industry insists. And for good BIM, it needs to happen. Concerns about liability are legitimate. He suggested a US-style integrated liability model contract where the builder shares responsibility by sharing the model.
The discussion concluded with agreement on all sides that ECI and good logistics were the cornerstones for successful offsite construction in mass timber, leaving attendees looking for ways to better apply the concepts once back at work.