From resistance to urban sprawl to changing demographics as baby boomers downsize and first home owners enter the market, there are a number of drivers behind the growing impact of Australia’s mid-rise construction sector. Meanwhile affordability, skill shortages on site and the promise of safer, quicker, lighter, quieter and less wasteful construction all seem to point to the possibilities of offsite methodology for the sector.
A number of companies are responding to current and potential future demand in mid-rise construction with innovative offsite / prefab product and service suites. At the same time, many of them are dealing with the challenges associated with a new approach.
In terms of timber structures, the recent NCC code change implemented on 1 May, which allows the use of timber and EWP up to 25 metres or eight storeys, has ignited interest in the potential use of prefab timber in the mid-rise sector. The recently introduced changes cover both ‘timber construction’ and ‘massive timber’ (CLT, LVL, Glulam) systems. One company making waves in this area is XLam. Established in New Zealand and with a growing Australian presence, this innovative venture supplies sustainable engineered building solutions in natural solid wood. Xlam Marketing and Strategy Manager (Aus & NZ) Paul Kremer confirms the firm is currently in discussions with many organisations interested in growing the multi-residential market using mid-rise construction in the inner suburbs of major cities, particularly Melbourne.
“The ‘deem to satisfy’ (DTS) provisions, within the National Construction Code 2016, appear to be the primary catalyst for many organisations to consider constructing in [relatively] new materials, such as Cross Laminated Timber, and timber more generally. The structural characteristics of CLT make it an ideal product for the mid-rise sector with a number of projects currently in construction showing that it can be a significantly faster and cheaper way to build than some conventional systems.”
Recently XLam became a foundation member of Nightingale Housing. “Nightingale is transforming the affordable multi-residential housing market with a true ‘triple-bottom-line’ and ‘complete transparency ethos.’ Austin Maynard Architects are the lead architects on Nightingale 3 who are currently considering the use of CLT for the structure. We firmly believe that our association with organisations such as Nightingale, who are operating within the multi-residential urban infill space, provide us with a unique opportunity to capture a portion of the mid-rise market who understand the benefits of timber. We anticipate this market to grow significantly in the coming years.”
Kremer says the challenges of using CLT in the mid-rise sector are similar to high and low-rise.
“It is vital to engage in the design, using CLT or other alternative forms of materials, in the early stages of the project. Not only to keep your design options open, however to understand the basics of the material and how it all works. As with most ‘pre-built’ systems, all the decisions for the entire project are made within the design phase, before product has even landed on-site. This is quite a reversal of process when compared to more traditional methods of building. At a basic level one of the major challenges is in convincing the mid-rise sector that they can build things more efficiently in CLT, as opposed to the low-rise sector, which has a higher number of clients willing to utilise new technology.”
Another company working in the structural timber space is Pryda, a division of ITW Construction Products. ITW owns other construction product brands including Paslode, Buildex, Ramset & Reid. Pryda services manufacturers of prefab timber floor cassettes and trusses, wall frames, panels and roof trusses with a complete design and manufacturing system. The Pryda system includes design and production management software, manufacturing equipment, technical support and hardware products including trademarked Claw nailplates, bracing and structural brackets. The Pryda system ensures the prefab engineered timber products are easily manufactured offsite and then achieve a compliant onsite installation.
Simon Healey is Strategic Marketing Manager – Residential Division ITW Construction Products, Asia Pacific. He believes there are many opportunities for the use of prefab engineered timber in the Australian low- to mid-rise residential sector, although he also identifies the need for a change in the thinking behind project delivery.
Healey says, “While the overseas experience has demonstrated savings due to faster construction times, uptake of structural timber in the Australian market is currently hampered by a number of factors. Within the mid-rise sector, the design and construction professionals’ understanding of engineered timber is limited at present, while the supply chain capacity needs to be expanded via the timber truss and frame manufacturing plants.”
To secure success for prefab engineered timber within the mid-rise sector, proactive identification of opportunities will be key, he says. Given the “new thinking” entailed in utilising such solutions, Healey says one of the key objectives for the timber industry is to identify and target the design and construction community specialising in mid-rise construction early on. “In order to optimise the usefulness of the timber prefab solutions, it’s critical to instil the importance of getting specified at the design stage of the project.” Importantly the timber industry’s representative, FWPA is leading the charge in this respect.
In addressing the supply chain capacity issue, Healey advocates what he describes as a “Closed Loop” system entailing capable truss plants who co-ordinate, quote, design, manufacture and install products. He indicates that the engineered timber industry has to at least match and preferably exceed the service offer that the incumbent structural system providers are delivering.
Shane Strong, Business Development Manager at NSW based company Strongbuild, whose offering includes community building for developers and retirement village operators, confirms the company’s streamlined building systems, which can panelise complex pre-fab timber building elements, caters for lightweight timber construction up to five storeys for apartments.
“We are also looking at systems that will incorporate a hybrid of both CLT and lightweight timber construction. We really see the opportunity in the mid-rise market to gain more efficiency out of panelising our product.”
Strongbuild’s offsite techniques are primed for the speedy delivery of mid-rise developments, with current projects including The Gardens, Macarthur in Campbelltown, NSW, a 101 apartment project for affordable housing provider BlueCHP. “With almost 3,000 cubic metres of CLT, this will be Australia’s largest CLT project.” It also demonstrates the speed with which such developments can be undertaken. The first six storey structure was erected in less than six weeks, with the second seven level structure taking shape at the time of writing.
Strongbuild has also started construction on Aveo Norwest. The resort style living for seniors is described as a vertical village showcasing the possibilities of CLT and representing a benchmark in Luxury Retirement Living in Australia. The development will consist of 130 luxury retirement units over two 10 storey towers, with a nine-storey residential component of 64 units, constructed entirely out of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT).” Clearly the timber category is just one part of the equation. Other companies are innovating through the use of prefabricated prefinished volumetric modules that can be quickly assembled into mid-rise structures. One such company is Quicksmart Homes.
According to Managing Director James Thorrold, this approach offers unique advantages and efficiencies for sectors with repetitive design, such as hotels, student accommodation, hospital wards, aged care and select residential apartment projects.
He adds that with growing recognition, barriers to the sector’s development appear to be receding. “For example, construction funding of modular projects by the Australian banking sector has historically been problematic, however, with an increasing track record of successfully delivered projects, this barrier is coming down.”
“Because there are differences in the design of a modular building compared to a conventional RC building, it is essential there is early engagement between the project architect /consultants and the modular suppliers design team. The opportunities for redesigning a conventional building to adopt a modular system are constrained.” Demarcation of the conventional works and modular components and its inclusions/exclusions can also prove difficult to communicate to parties unfamiliar with modular systems, he warns.
“This may translate to some confusion and requires a higher level of documentation to avoid any disputes.”
Utility provision is another area where innovative companies are able to offer a point of difference. Modular electrical wiring specialist Wire By Click has successfully utilised its solutions in the mid-rise sector. Adam Bowden, Team Leader – WBC Projects + Products, says the company’s MLEX offering is a “modular wiring solution”, which is “purpose built for modular construction with a <25mm out diameter so it can fit through almost any standard framing ‘knock out’ or ‘access hole’.”
“Our solutions are designed in consultation with the customer and documented in our Marked Up Drawing service. These drawings are colour coded and detailed so that they can be easily referred to onsite at the point of install, ensuring the guys on the ground know what they need and where it needs to go.”
Bowden says the company’s offering is designed to work with the pre-fab sector’s focus on converting, where possible, typical ‘onsite’ construction processes to ‘offsite’ preengineered, prefabricated solutions. “The main driver in doing so is ultimately to reduce build times and associated activities whilst shifting cost centres and risk to a more predictable and controlled environment, in other words, factories.”
“We see the main challenge to retaining the full value of these obvious advantages as being in the successful coordination of the project in order to allow for the seamless integration of both off-site and on-site construction to form a holistic, comprehensive solution. Despite advances in other areas of ‘prefab’, electrical services in many cases are still being installed using ‘traditional’ methods, “which poses a huge opportunity for further improvement.” Peter Blythe is Managing Director of Melbourne company Dynamic Steel Frame, which specialises in light gauge steel (LGS) framing systems. LGS solutions are designed so a single trade can take the building from slab to roof truss in significantly less time than would be required with a traditional concrete build, he says.
Along with speed, LGS brings other benefits. “Being prefabricated, waste is hugely reduced from a stick built system. Our factory runs on less than 2% scrap, which is almost unheard of, because of the way our machinery takes coils of steel and transforms these into all the members, with no hand cutting required. No common components and JIT production enable this low level of waste. Onsite waste is virtually eliminated. Any factory scrap is 100% recycled into new steel.
“It is vital to engage in the design, using CLT or other alternative forms of materials, in the early stages of the project. Not only to keep your design options open, however to understand the basics of the material and how it all works.” Paul Kremer – Xlam
Strongbuild: Macarthur Gardens.
Strongbuild: Aveo Norwest.
“There’s really no limit to the capabilities of the steel and the system.” Blythe is pleased to confirm that Dynamic Steel Frame recently won the Australian Steel Institute “Excellence in Steel – Small Projects” award for a four storey project in Cheltenham, Victoria. “Overseas, LGS is common up to nine storeys, but in Australia this isn’t the case. The site was very long and narrow, meaning getting heavy weight items to the far end of the build was almost impossible. LGS made light work of the structure and was entirely erected by hand, with mobile cranes only required to lift the packs onto each level. Total erection time for the four storeys, 2500+ square metres, ready for a roof, was 10 weeks.”
“It was recognised as highly innovative in the Australian market,” he adds. “This signals a real shift in the industry to the highly efficient Hi-Tensile steels, manufactured in Australia by Bluescope Steel. This disruptive technology is gaining significant traction against all other competing technology and we are excited to see the market grow and develop.”
Blythe points to possible ways of encouraging yet greater uptake of LGS, which are arguably applicable to the whole offsite / prefab sector. “Why take three weeks on site to do something that could be offsite manufactured and installed in a matter of days? This could be in the form of simple frame and truss sets, prefabricated facades frames, pre-clad facades and balustrades or even completely finished bathroom and kitchen pods. The uptake would be greatly increased if initiatives, like a certain % of a project being offsite manufactured in publicly funded projects, were to be implemented. Once builders get a feel for the program savings and the reduced onsite complexity, they are converted very quickly.”
CONFERENCE FRAMES OFFSITE TIMBER DEBATE
With Australia’s steadily growing urban population reflected in high levels of construction for low-rise and mid-rise multi-residential developments, the Frame Australia national conference and exhibition ‘Timber Offsite Construction’ looks set to be a timely opportunity for discussion.
Taking place in June 2017, the conference will focus on offsite building systems and will include presentations by prominent architects, engineers and developers outlining the design and construction benefits of utilising timber offsite building concepts.
Along with population growth, rising site costs have opened new opportunities for increased use of prefabricated offsite systems, particularly timber, in both residential and commercial building, conference organisers confirmed.
“Global trends are quickly moving to greater use of offsite systems, particularly in timber, to achieve faster construction times and lower costs, with countries in Europe ranging from 25% to over 50% of all housing using fully panellised offsite timber systems,” says Kevin Ezard – Director – Frame Australia Conference and Exhibition. “In Australia, changes this year to the National Construction Code have increased limits for timber building height, previously only three storeys but now allowing timber and wood construction up to eight storeys under deemed to satisfy provisions.”
“Designers and builders are now embarking on a wide range of building projects either in planning or under construction using offsite panelised construction systems in timber framing and mass timber (CLT) to heights not previously contemplated.”
“Typically, low-rise housing construction is moving to fully panelised timber floors and walls for site erection in a few days, and mid-rise multi-residential buildings three to five storeys in timber framing or mass timber panel systems in a few weeks, providing huge savings.”
“This rising demand has also led to a significant increase in automated manufacturing plants for supply of prefabricated timber building systems, with production capacity in Australia currently growing at its fastest rate ever to meet the projected supply levels in the next decade.”