Featured in The Age: Prefab sprouts: jump in pre-built homes and towers on agenda

    Once, prefabricated homes were best known for being cheap coastal retreats or granny flats of dubious quality. Times have changed, with architect-designed prefab homes now being built for upwards of $1 million. 

    Rising interest in pre-built homes, and the skyrocketing use of off-site construction in commercial apartments has led to Australia’s first prefabricated building conference.

    On Monday, participants in the prefabAus conference took site visits to some of the best prefabricated buildings already done in the city.

    Over the next two days, around 150 participants will discuss how the industry will grow, and how its efficiency might be increased.

    "Construction is becoming industrialised," said David Chandler, a building industry figure best known for his role as construction director of Canberra’s Parliament House. 

    A strong advocate for prefabricated building, Mr Chandler said Australia’s construction industry was not keeping up with overseas trends, where labour costs were being brought down by increased off-site manufacturing.

    Among Melbourne’s well-known builders to have dived into prefab is Hickory, which recently built a nine-story block of 36 apartments in Moonee Ponds. It took just five days to put up.

    Hickory has also installed almost 800 pre-made bathroom pods into an apartment tower it is building at 568 Collins Street – saving an estimated 30 per cent on costs compared to conventional building.

    Perhaps the best known pre-fabricated building in Melbourne is the stunning Docklands library, which opened in June. Made largely from the new and much-discussed cross-laminated timber, the core structure of the library was made off-site and put together by a small team of carpenters instead of a huge workforce of builders.

    ”A lot of the building was made off site,” said David Tweedie from Hayball, one of the library’s architects, with another architecture firm, Clare Design.

    He said pre-fabricating the building had cut down both the numbers working on the project, and its wood construction meant it was far lighter than concrete. This meant it did not need incredibly deep piles to support the weight of the books it must carry.

    Mr Tweedie said reducing accidents on building sites was a big advantage of prefabrication. ”Site safety is a big story,” he said.

    Mr Tweedie also said prefabrication with more sustainable materials like wood meant far less danger and complication than working with concrete. ”Essentially, it was a team of about six carpenters that put the main structure of this library together,” said Mr Tweedie, sitting in its high-ceilinged foyer.

    The prefabricated nature of it also meant mobile cranes had been used, rather than more expensive tower cranes.

    Rob Colquhoun is managing director of Prebuilt, which has three enormous factories in Bayswater where it builds commercial and residential projects to be installed on-site. It produces around 50 houses a year there.

    He estimates pre-fabricated homes account for around 2 per cent of the residential building market at the moment, and that it will grow.

    Prefab housing was, he said, ”the dominant way of building a house in Japan. In northern European countries – Sweden, Norway, certainly Germany – prefab has had a much larger take up than in Australia”.

    He said he expected the market to grow, because there had been ”a change in paradigm” in prefabricated homes, from granny flats and kit homes to well-designed houses.

    ”The people who buy our houses now are the early adopters; they’ve done their homework and are seeing a way for them to get good design and architecture without having to undertake the risk,” Mr Colquhoun said.

    He said his firm, rather than being ”a one-man show out the back of a ute” had processes set up to help customers from seeing their house designed and built, through to installation and handover.


    Clay Lucas, City Editor, The Age 10th August 2014

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