Featured in Architecture & Design: The changing palette of prefab in Australia

Nathan Johnson, Architecture and Design, 24 July 2015.

 Perceptions in Australia about prefabricated buildings are changing and are slowly transcending the negative connotations associated with traditional prefab design—think demountable school classrooms and pine log cabins.

And while at last count the prefab sector accounted for only three per cent ($4.6 billion) of the Australian construction industry’s $150 billion contribution to the GDP, this figure has been estimated to triple over the next decade.

One of the industries tipped to innovate with this movement is the building products sector and already we are seeing manufacturers and suppliers innovating and diversifying their product range to be more aligned with prefab construction processes.

Rob Colquhoun, director of ‘Prebuilt’, a prefabricated building outfit based in Melbourne, notes it’s the growing push from architects to incorporate customisation into prefab building processes that has driven manufacturers to improve their prefab product offering.

“Traditionally, kit and transportable homes were constructed using materials such as treated pine logs and conventional plywood or Colorbond cladding products,” explains Colquhoun.

“This palette was driven by the caravan park market and a lower cost mindset.”

“But due to the quiet but firm direction of architectural design, materials that are now used include a variety of proprietary wall linings such as James Hardie Scyon products, Weathertex, Alucobond, high grade timber cladding such as Woodform and even ceramic coated metal cladding called Ceratec Vitreous Enamel Cladding and colour through cladding materials such as Vitrapanel.”

Similarly, Jason Fremder, Managing Director of Harwyn, who recently won a 2015 Good Design Award for their range of prefabricated modular office pods, believes that it is material improvements, namely in single solution building envelope systems that have helped his pods to become more thermally efficient, lighter, customisable and cheaper to build.

“As far as Harwyn is concerned, we have been able to do away with traditional framing and apply an insulated sandwich panel for the walls, floors and roofs,” he notes.

“The stiffness of the interlocking panel and spanning ability for floor and walls allows us to very quickly construct the ‘pod’ on a steel base prepared for cranage or fork Lift, and ready for transport.”

But innovations haven’t been restricted to exterior envelope products, nor have they remained confined to whole building solutions.  Companies such as Hickory Group, Interpod, PreFab Bathrooms and Podfirst all offer prefabricated bathrooms solutions to the Australian market that come equipped with high grade materials that perform well on a variety of measures.

Hickory Group’s “Sync” prefab bathrooms, for example, utilise Kerlite floor covering, which is a high grade pressed porcelain product from Italy. Although only 3mm thick, it is frost, scratch, stain and graffiti resistant, Class 0 fire retardant and has a water absorption rate of less than 0.01 per cent.

Melbourne’s ArchiBlox arhitects also recently completed the world’s first carbon-positive prefabricated house and it featured, among other materials,UBIQ’S INEX>FLOOR board range which is a high strength lightweight internal or external flooring sheet with tongue and grooved edges.

INEX boards also come off the shelf with a dual-side feature adaptable to a variety of client tastes. They include one rough side which can be used as a substrate for most finishes such as tiles, vinyl or timber and a smooth side that can achieve a polished concrete like surface.

Big businesses like BlueScope Steel are also innovating. Their ENDUROFRAME Building System utilises a special rollformer unit and CAD software program to prefabricate custom light gauge steel framing for residential and light commercial building trusses and wall frames.

BlueScope notes that because their rollformer is designed to operate in conjunction with their software, framing systems can be easily designed, detailed and manufactured in a factory with reduced material usage, reduced labour and improved turnaround.

While some experts still consider Australia to be lagging behind in prefab compared to other countries such as Switzerland and Japan, there are signs beyond the innovations we’re seeing in the building products sector that prefab is gaining the attention of both the private and public sector.

The University of Melbourne recently received a $4 million government grant to establish a Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing in hope that their research could produce ideas for innovative and customer specific building products required in future markets.

Australian hub for building prefabrication, PrefabAus are also set to host their second conference in August and the event has attracted some big sponsors from the Australian building products sector.

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