SETTING THE SCENE: NZ AND FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS
As a small isolated country at the bottom of the world, New Zealand relies on international economic trade relations. There are currently nine free trade agreements in place, including China, Australia, ASEAN region, Hong Kong, Thailand, P4 Trans Pacific region, and Korea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) sets agreements to open up market opportunities, streamline processes, reduce costs, and create more certainty and security for companies doing business overseas.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST: KIWI PREFAB REVISITED
There are several historical examples of offshore-sourced offsite solutions documented in the ‘Kiwi Prefab: Cottage to Cutting-edge’ book that was written for the exhibition of the same name in 2012.
NZ and Australia share a history in the importation of Manning Portable Colonial Cottages from London, from 1833 to 1850. The ‘La Trobe Cottage’ in Melbourne is one of the most famous remaining examples of these types.
By the 1900s, NZ had imported design ideas and plan-books (Victorian style gable-and-bay villas and California bungalows), as well as physical housing kits. In the mid-20th Century, the NZ government experimented with directly imported housing technologies from Sweden, Austria and the UK.
“In 1947, a single house imported from Sweden was constructed using prefabricated wall panels, complete with window and door joinery. In 1948, two houses imported from England were erected temporarily in Wellington using aluminium components” (Kiwi Prefab p.52).
Source: MFAT website, https://www.mfat.govt.nz/en/trade/free-trade-agreements/free-trade-agreements-in-force/
“In the 1950s, the government embarked on several low-cost housing initiatives. Responding to public outcry on the post-war housing shortage 500 pre-cut houses were ordered from England for Auckland, and 500 from Austria for Titahi Bay. This initiative made the government unpopular with the local building industry which was concerned about losing work to imported products” (Kiwi Prefab p.53).
TODAY’S OFFSHORE ‘THREATS’
There are plenty of ‘Chinese whispers’ about perceived threats of imported offsite solutions being brought in to NZ, but very little evidence of complete prefab systems brought in to date. On the flip-side, a successful example is Ecotech. They are a foundation PrefabNZ Member that designs in NZ and fabricates in China – a trans-international business that has been in operation for over a decade.
“There are plenty of ‘Chinese whispers’ about perceived threats of imported offsite solutions being brought in to NZ, but very little evidence of complete prefab systems brought in to date. On the flip-side, a successful example is Ecotech. They are a foundation PrefabNZ Member that designs in NZ and fabricates in China – a trans-international business that has been in operation for over a decade.” Pamela Bell, CEO, PrefabNZ.
In a booming market with escalating product and service prices, there is a strong incentive to cut costs. As in Australia, NZ has witnessed recent examples of general product substitution and resulting non-conformance, both which pose very real threats to construction, whether traditional or offsite.
Industry product compliance experts such as Bruce Kohn of the Building Industry Federation (BIF), cite the most notable examples to date:
- Electrical cable obtained from China and supplied by an Auckland firm into an apartment block, rest-homes and school swimming pool complex was found to be unfit for purpose, despite a compliance certificate from an Adelaide Conformity Certification firm. It had to be remedied at a total cost of $5 million NZD.
- 1,600 tonnes of structural steel installed in the Waikato Expressway in mid-2017 was imported from China by a local supplier. It had a certificate of conformity by a third-party but arrived onshore as non-compliant and had to be replaced at the contractors’ cost. Chinese regulators then disqualified the steel-testing laboratory for using false accreditation. [Source: radio.co.nz/news]
- Sub-standard steel mesh for reinforcing concrete slabs was imported from China and Malaysia at less than 10% of the local price. A 2016 news-piece identified that critical materials such as plumbing pipe, safety glass and structural bolts were being bought on overseas websites like Alibaba at cheap prices and without quality certification. [Source: stuff.co.nz]
Astonishingly, International Accreditation NZ (IANZ) Chief Executive, Dr Llew Richards, believes more than 50% of product certifications received from Asia are counterfeit.
Dr Troy Coyle is the Chief Executive of the Heavy Engineering Research Association (HERA) that oversees steel guidance. She comments that they “spend a lot of time creating standards to ensure quality”, such as the “Steel Fabrication Scheme that HERA Certification manages.”
Today’s opportunities for growing NZ’s prefab industry under KiwiBuild
KiwiBuild, the NZ government initiative to deliver 100,000 quality affordable starter homes over the next 10 years, is furnishing opportunities to work across national boundaries through potential information collaborations, open-source systems and shared knowledge platforms. These pathways would need to acknowledge NZ’s unique seismic and weather conditions (think horizontal rain) that necessitate a localised approach to international benchmarks in offsite systems, products and solutions.■
There are also opportunities to share approaches to prefab uptake barriers in procurement at scale, bank finance, building consenting and skills development. See more www.prefabnz. com/Projects/