To Modular Or Not To Modular, That Is The Question?

As far back as 2000 years ago, Sinhalese Kings of ancient Sri Lanka were able to erect giant structures using prefabricated buildings technology, with some sections prepared separately and then fitted together.  Perhaps Shakespeare pondered the question, to modular or not to modular, when he built The Globe in 1559?  The entire Portugese town of Vila Real de Santo in the Algarve, was quickly erected in the late 18th century, using prefabricated materials.  During the 19th century, Australia imported a large number of prefabricated houses from the United Kingdom and by the 20th century prefab housing became a quick and easy solution in Britain to providing temporary housing after the wide-scale destruction of cities during World War II bombing raids.

With “prefab” being an umbrella term that encompasses off site building, “modular” is a more modern term that implies a more concise method of construction, which can encompass the whole build or just a small component of it.  For example, in the residential sector we may think of a fully constructed home, manufactured off-site and transported in whole or part and then finally integrated together with the site using traditional methods. Commercially, an example could be a fully finished hotel room that is transported to site and ‘stacked’ both vertically and horizontally to a medium or high-rise grade, with the balance of traditional works being completed around it.

As affordability, speed of delivery, workplace safety and sustainability have come under the spotlight this has increased the focus on the benefits of modular construction. When it comes to large scale, commercial modular projects, New Zealand currently has no real large scale commercial modular capability, but we certainly have an existing track record when it comes to residential modular developments and projects that fit somewhere in between.  However, the industry in New Zealand is still at the fledging stage and arguably needs a bit of a shove to keep up with the great progress other countries have been making in this space over the last 40 years.

As a country we have a tremendous amount of innovation and ‘can-do’ attitude and arguably should be leading the charge in this sector, but we are lagging behind. Companies from overseas are keen to implement their modular construction products and technology here in New Zealand, but are struggling to get to grips with synchronising their imported product with local industry practices as well as the minefield of navigating our compliance and consenting regulations and procedures.

Is modular really “faster, stronger, better and cheaper”?  In other parts of the world this statement has already been proved to be true, with a recent article ‘57 floors in 19 days’ a construction video out of China demonstrating this nicely.  So, what’s different here in New Zealand? The weather, working conditions, seismic activity?

There has been a lot of talk about the benefits of modular construction, particularly for housing projects. A report published by Prefab NZ back in 2014 suggested that prefab houses cost on average $47,000 less to build than their built-on-site equivalent, and that this can reduce construction time by as much as 50 percent.  The report also said that they produce less waste (because the houses are designed using standard sizes for building materials) and result in a higher quality product. This is all positive but concentrated in the residential field.

It certainly seems that there is a place for this type of construction within the industry, particularly for certain types of standardised design, and although it won’t solve all the problems in the construction sector it may help with some of them.

The construction industry has an aging workforce. Maybe building indoors will attract a whole new generation who in turn will bring with them all the hi-tech savvy/disruptive ideas that they are so good at”. Neill Laurenson (Senior Project Manager, Xigo) believes it is also safer, as much of the work can take place away from the major hazards you encounter on a construction site. This opinion is based firmly on his experience of running a modular build factory in Australia which also provided less waste by recycling materials (more sustainable), improved ability to control inventory, protected building materials and allowed for better for quality assurance.

New Zealand is the ‘Shaky Isles’ and our processes and procedures need to be stringent. This may account for some of the reluctance to embrace this ‘new form’ of building on a large commercial scale. However, with Building Information Modelling now being common place and the development of product technical statements, perhaps the time is now right or even overdue for real commercial modular build to start. However, before modular construction can fully take off more investment is needed and for that investment to be viable, more scale and more willingness to embrace it amongst local councils, central government, the building industry and the public is needed.

Worldwide it has been proven that almost any project can have a significant proportion delivered in a modular fashion, if the designers think about modular from the outset.  For example in Sweden, a world leader in this type of construction, as many as 84 percent of Swedish detached homes have prefabricated elements and Australia is certainly looking to grow this type of construction. Modular construction is currently one of the fastest growing building applications in Australia and last year a strategic partnership between Monash University, the Victorian Government, Engineers Australia and industry delivered the world’s first Modular Code of Construction Handbook for industry best practice.

If New Zealand is to catch up and get on the modular band-wagon, the industry needs to collectively respond to make it happen.  What’s apparent is that without any capacity at present for large scale commercial modular, there hasn’t been any urgency to evolve, so a significant shift towards modular may be some time off.  Perhaps a solution could come in the form of overseas manufacturers –potentially we need them to kick start renewed energy and appetite.  What would help the argument for more modular is to see successful examples on our own doorstep, showcasing the great potential and opportunity that it has to offer.

New Zealand should not be left behind. Getting consent practice and compliance standardised will help hugely in encouraging manufacturers here, allowing projects to benefit from the speed to market as well as ‘build cost’ savings. As Project Managers we have our part to play to help teams fully appreciate the manufacturing process and how it needs to seamlessly integrate with the on-site built environment. Effective staging, local procurement practices, pragmatic risk management, best practice quality management and cost control processes are all part of this service.  We trust that manufacturers, innovators and those with a passion for modular will find ways to bring the concept to the forefront here in New Zealand in the near future.

Other news from this edition:

Quality Aged Care Facilities Require Quality Project Managers

From Strength to Strength

Xigo Project Managers in Major Hospital Redevelopment

Auckland Airport Thinks Outside the Box in Huge Warehouse Project