Robert Allan waves around the newly completed Sunshine office of his company Royal Wolf.
”From the outside it looks like containers,” Allan says. ”From the inside, it has a completely different aspect: kitchen, staff room, management offices along that wall – not what you expect to see from the outside of a container.”
A few kilometres away, in a factory in Brooklyn, builder Hickory is producing the modular units for a new wave of high-rise apartments that started with the Little Hero in central Melbourne in 2010. By year-end the builder is due to complete a five-storey, 120-room modular hotel in the WA town of South Hedland, having already built one modular apartment block in the town.
Both Royal Wolf’s new office – made from 16 six-metre containers – and the range of accommodation Hickory is building are benefiting from a push to tackle the lengthy time frames that increase the cost of construction in Australia.
Aaron Roberts, a director of Fitzroy-based Room 11 Architects, says the office he designed for Royal Wolf – a company that deals in shipping containers and sells them fitted out as anything from portable kitchens, to storage sheds, to walkways on construction sites, to low-security prison accommodation – was not much cheaper than a conventional office due to materials such as glass and furnishings. .
”It’s more about the flexibility in relation to movement and shipping and transport,” he says. ”I don’t think modularity will hit mainstream until we have larger factories and pricing can be more competitive in the volume-build industry.”
Hickory managing director Michael Argyrou says modular buildings can be completed in half the time of conventional ones and with about one-30th of the carbon emissions. ”Our waste is in small buckets as opposed to large bins on construction sites,” he says.
Allan says containers could take between 6 per cent and 10 per cent of Australia’s market for portable buildings, up from the current 1 per cent, but there are limits.
”The modular buildings are cheaper, they take up more ground space, and they have an external aesthetic that can be a little bit better than a container,” he says.
Argyrou says the increasing acceptance of higher-density living in Australia, and the greater willingness of families to live in apartments, will drive demand for buildings produced off-site. These currently account for less than 5 per cent of new houses. In Germany it is 15 per cent – similar to Japan – and in Sweden it ranges between 50 per cent and 90 per cent.
”We’ve got a long way to go,” Argyrou says.
Michael Bleby, The Age – March 26th 2014