Panelisation and offsite construction are natural evolutions of F&T. So why are these technologies taking so long to filter through the construction sector? We asked the experts.

At recent construction conferences, the words offsite, panelised and modular have been favourites. They’re attractive ideas – fabricating a more finished product than wall frames and trusses and delivering buildings Lego-like to site comes with many advantages, including much less working at height. But while offsite timber construction is delivering landmark buildings like Brisbane’s 25 King, its adoption has been slow for mid-tier and small builders and fabricators.

One cause has been industry inexperience in designing for offsite. To help counter this, Fleetwood Building Solutions teamed up with prefabAUS to run the Fleetwood Challenge Cup, asking teams of built environment students from selected universities to submit designs for affordable modular housing units. We spoke with Damien Crough, executive chairman at prefabAUS and A/Prof Francesco Mancini of the Curtin University School of Design and the Built Environment about the challenge and offsite methods, and with Zoe Yeoh about her experience as a participant.

The Challenge Cup

Crough, who is a founding member of prefabAUS, the peak body and hub for the Australian offsite construction industry, was approached by the Fleetwood team. “They had come up with this concept and we had a look at it and thought it was a really excellent idea,” he says. “So we went into partnership together to deliver the project.”

A rapid growth in construction technology in recent decades, particularly in DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly) and BIM (building information modelling) has made it possible for the construction industry to advance quickly. But the growth has outstripped many practitioners. As Crough explains, “These things together are allowing this really fast move to automation, to subassemblies and components that can be integrated into buildings but there’s not a lot of knowledge out there. Most professionals in the industry were educated before this boom happened in the last few years.”

Accordingly, he was excited that the Challenge targets design and engineering students. Mancini was just as pleased for Curtin to be one of the institutions approached for the opportunity, as it tied neatly into several teaching streams.

“We have a number of theses revolving around exactly these themes of affordability through prefabrication or industrialisation of methods of construction,” Mancini says.

“We approach these themes as designers, but this competition has given us the opportunity to work together with engineers which is a fantastic plus. It was a great experience for both sides to listen to and understand each other. The work became very collaborative, rather than individual and, during the process of design, students had the opportunity to learn more about production systems and technologies and how these can support sustainability.”

Yeoh, who comes from an architecture background and is in her first year of a Masters degree was part of Curtin Team 4, whose entry won the Fleetwood Industry Award. For Yeoh and her colleagues, the real-world applications were essential.

“From the start of the competition, our team’s goal was to challenge conventional design systems and come up with an innovative solution for the future of offsite construction to a degree of resolution that would be buildable,” Yeoh says.

“The process leading to the final proposal involved extensive research on DfMA and DFD (data flow diagram) construction and testing on the architectural side to deliver a novel, functional concept and detailing to the project, as well as on the engineers to ensure the proposal would be structurally sound.”

In addition to the design challenge, the brief’s focus on affordable/social housing provided inspiration. As Yeoh says, “There are so many ideas we could lend to the public housing sector that go beyond the brief of being affordable – bringing other value to the design, particularly in rehabilitating and enhancing community relationships.”

Community building

While the Fleetwood Challenge Cup is a single, annual event, it reflects the close relationship between researchers and industry in developing offsite models.

Crough has a long list of the former: “There’s the University of Melbourne with their Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Prefabricated Housing. Curtin University, obviously, while Monash University developed the handbook for modular construction and Deakin University is teaching the fundamentals of prefabrication. At Western Sydney University, David Chandler the new adjunct professor has set up the Centre for Smart Modern Construction and then there’s Newcastle University – they’re focusing on the safety benefits of offsite manufacturing. And many more.”

As for their industry partners, the key triggers are securing funding and driving the policy changes that see clients turn to offsite when making procurement choices. Mancini’s team at Curtin collaborates with the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre who aim (amid a broader program) to promote good-quality affordable housing within the context of existing urban developed precincts.

He gives the example of his adopted home city: “Traditionally, the WA market has been characterised by single housing. Now there is an increase in multi-res housing projects, particularly in the City of Perth region. There is a plan to increase the population and bring more intensity of life. Both the state government and the city are persuaded this can happen through densification of the urban environment, reducing the urban sprawl and concentrating efforts on transport-oriented design opportunities.”

Offsite construction methods are well suited to these goals. And while they are ‘material agnostic’, the model’s emphasis on sustainability and whole of life cycle design means that timber – both EWP and lightweight framing – with solutions for keeping costs down and speeding up program delivery schedules, is very attractive.

Unfortunately, not all governments are as active as WA with its roughly 33,000 affordable/social housing units built per year (though Mancini notes the demand still outstrips supply and the location of many housing projects is less effective than it could be). Despite widespread industry hopes that funding for social housing would form a key part of the recent Federal Budget construction stimulus, it was left out.

Crough was sadly unsurprised by this. He’s not convinced the will is there at a government level. “If you’ve ever spoken to Rob Pradolin [from Housing All Australians], he’ll tell you that it’s probably the private sector that has to do it. And I think that is what it comes down to,” he says. “Build to rent is starting to take shape now in Australia, where it hasn’t before. There are really successful models in the UK and US and Europe and it’s now got some of the big Tier 1 companies looking at it.”

Having had a long career in Italy, Mancini is sanguine about government inertia: “Sometimes they are listening, sometimes they’re not. One thing I have found is they listen when they see examples of best practice.” He suggests ways the private sector can work closely with researchers: “If we are able to build the perfect prototype: that’s a winning investment.”

Mancini urges building prototypes that are able to quickly show evidence of how they improve multiple aspects of the community – from the built environment, to having key workers close to jobs, to helping solve various community dysfunctions.

Disrupting traditions

In other construction areas, the Victorian government has impressed Crough with its openness to policy changes within the building sector. “prefabAUS was involved in helping them on their construction technology sector strategy, which was about identifying prefabrication and BIM and all these other technologies that can help grow that sector of the industry,” he says.

He points to the Victorian School Building Authority, which identified 100 schools that had classrooms with asbestos. These were removed and replaced with modular solutions, “but they’ve now gone further to look at all-modular schools as an option and that’s helping support the industry, because the government is putting their money where their mouth is.”

Off that success, Schools Infrastructure NSW is also looking at a modular approach – “And that’s hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of schools they need to procure. SA is doing the same thing. And there are really good lessons and projects coming out of this, so the governments are understanding it more and seeing the benefits. They’re now looking to other areas of their procurement to introduce prefabrication. As a result, it’s starting to permeate through industry, because governments have been successfully delivering projects.”

Mancini notes that disruption works in all directions. “The academic world is also facing a challenge,” he says. “We come from an approach that was based on our solid knowledge of a particular problem and our teaching was based on knowledge content delivery. But knowledge is fluid. It is changing. We need to bring our students on board with us in working on skills that allow us to understand problems and how they change quickly over time.”

The solution he champions is collaborative, building collectives across disciplines. “That interdisciplinary collaboration involves many experts, communities, government, technical and financial expertise, and people,” Mancini says. “We design for people, for them to live in a better environment, which is more sustainable for future generations. And this involves an understanding that we are part of an ecosystem: natural systems and urban systems and social systems all coexist.”

Parts of that system include looking at materials costs from manufacture to end of life or reuse. At the building’s construction costs, running costs, thermal qualities, natural ventilation… Mancini says researchers are well placed to develop testing models that can produce solid data, as well as investigate less-tangible questions such as what social and economic benefits particular buildings bring. But those questions can only be answered once these structures are built.

Building change

“Technologically, these systems are about finding inexpensive ways to be efficient, fast and flexible,” says Mancini. “In many ways, they’re ideal for mid-tier and smaller builders, but the way institutions like ours operate is we tend to work with larger partners and government. So any particular solution we design runs the risk of being designed, if not exclusively, with a sort of unconscious bias as regards smaller-scale enterprises.”

At the same time, both Mancini and Crough recognise the huge resource represented by smaller fabricators and builders across Australia as well as stopping points, from information to financing, that keep smaller firms from moving into offsite.

“Yes, we’ve got Tier 1 Mirvac working with TimberTruss on multiple projects in NSW and Victoria that rely on offsite construction,” says Crough, “but they’ve pulled TimberTruss with them to that point where they have a system that works for both of them. That said, it’s an evolution. A lot of people are already prefabricating floor cassettes and wall frames; why not take the next steps and put the external cladding on and put the window in?

“If it’s a cost issue, some of that might be solvable using DfMA tools to run a just-in-time delivery process. Some suppliers, like Dindas Australia, will cut everything to size in an order for trusses, beams and LVL, then package it up and they’ll send it out to site as a job lot. Fabricators could similarly order parts – essentially pre-cut kits – and then there’s a lot less fabrication work for them to do, just assembly. It takes out some risk.”

In terms of information, Crough says prefabAUS focuses on showcasing. “What we try to do is bang the drum about projects like the ones TimberTruss and Mirvac are doing and what Peter Ward and Drouin West Timber are doing in their two- and three-level townhouse prefabrications. The more we can showcase to the industry what’s being done – and have the people involved talking openly and honestly about their learnings and challenges, so that others don’t have to go through the same ones – the better.”

At the time of writing, Crough had just secured an upcoming webinar with David Haller from Mirvac, “on their use of timber and how they got to that, the work that they did leading up to that in trying different systems and where they landed. It’ll be really informative.” (See the Events tab at for date and time.)

“I am a believer in the concept of ecology,” says Mancini. “When you consider the system as an ecology, there are ecological niches, exactly as in nature, so there is basically space for everyone and we need to be mindful that we don’t leave anyone out. Some innovation will come from smaller companies, because they work differently.”

Again, it’s a two-way street. Just as academia and industry bodies are trying to include mid-tier and small enterprises, Crough and Mancini emphasise that research benefits all businesses. “I was a practitioner for 20 years before dedicating myself to academia,” Mancini says. “And I advise making effort to spend some of your resources in research and development. Universities or research centres, such as CUSB (Curtin University School of Built Environment) can be good partners in that. Stop doing certain things in certain ways, and test opportunities for doing things in new ways. Even in difficult moments like this, where everyone is very cognisant that we need to be very attentive to our resources, R&D should always be one of our objectives.”

Image: The Curtin University Team 2 entry for the Fleetwood Challenge Cup. EWP were chosen to reduce the carbon footprint and deliver a quick build. Courtesy Curtin University School of Built Environment