COOPERATIVE RESEARCH CENTRE TO CONNECT THE DOTS

THE AU$131M BUILDING 4.0 CRC INITIATIVE PROMISES TO RE-SHAPE BUILDING DELIVERY IN AUSTRALIA, BY CREATING A PLATFORM FOR “WHOLE PICTURE” INTEROPERABLE THINKING. BELINDA SMART SPOKE TO KEY STAKEHOLDERS IN THE INITIATIVE ABOUT WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OFFSITE CONSTRUCTION AND HOW BUILDERS ENGAGE WITH IT.

Encompassing Monash University, Lendlease, the University of Melbourne, Donovan Group, BlueScope, Sumitomo Forestry and CSR, along with 23 other partners, Building 4.0 CRC’s ambitious and wide ranging objective is to leverage digital systems, new products and processes aiming to transform Australia’s building industry. The driving principle behind the initiative is to create a “tech-enabled, collaborative future where the customer is at the centre of each building experience and buildings are not only better, but faster, cheaper and safer.”

The CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) will take a cross disciplinary approach spanning the fields of architecture, design, planning, construction, engineering, business, information technology and law, whose purpose is to develop industry-wide practices and protocols intended to transform the sector. Engagement with technology, data science and artificial intelligence will enable the application of robotics and digital fabrication to transform building delivery from development to design, production, assembly, operation, maintenance and end-of-life.

Building 4.0 CRC is funded by the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program, whose remit is to boost the economy through job creation and position Australia as a leader in the advanced manufacture of buildings.

Tangible outcomes: Daryl Patterson, Chief Product Officer, Lendlease Digital Delivery, cites the Forte Apartments building in Melbourne as a trigger for discussions around engineered timber. Workable models of innovation from Building 4.0 CRC are expected to have the same impact.

Research will be based at Monash University in partnership with the University of Melbourne, and in collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology. Objectives include a 30% reduction in project costs through digital technology and offsite manufacturing; a 40% per cent reduction in project delays, an 80% per cent reduction in construction waste and a 50% per cent reduction in CO2 emissions for more sustainable buildings. The entirety of the initiative will encompass everything from re-drafting codes and laws, to reducing emissions, to re-skilling the workforce for a yet-to-be-imagined future.

Building 4.0 CRC Interim CEO Professor Mathew Aitchison of Monash University told Built Offsite the three areas of endeavour supporting the project – sectoral transformation, digital transformation and building transformation – were pertinent to offsite construction.

Program 1 – Sectoral Transformation, aims to develop new industry-wide culture, practices and standard protocols that will enable the transformation of the entire sector. This includes skills and training development, policy and regulations improvement, supply and value chain connection, and consumer and market engagement.

Program 2 – Digital Transformation, will leverage the latest technologies, data science and AI in the development of new building processes and techniques. This will enable the application of IoT and smart field technologies such as AR/VR and robotics to optimise all phases of building delivery.

Program 3 – Building Transformation, targets the improvement of building “hardware” and processes, and their interaction with the digital and sectoral programs. This aims to improve all aspects of the key building phases: development, design, production, assembly, operation, maintenance and end-of-life.

“The proportions between all three may be modified and flexible but generally those three areas in some proportion have relevance to this sector,” he says. “In terms of research direction, our initial focus this year will be on establishing the project’s parameters, in other words, what problems are we trying to solve? The fact that we’re a CRC means that this is industry led, so the approach is applied rather than academic. And the methodology will entail a whole- ofprocess and whole-of-business approach.”

“In terms of research direction, our initial focus this year will be on establishing the project’s parameters, in other words, what problems are we trying to solve? The fact that we’re a CRC means that this is industry led, so the approach is applied rather than academic. And the methodology will entail a whole- ofprocess and whole-of-business approach.” Professor Mathew Aitchison, Interim CEO, Building 4.0 CRC.

Headline challenges guiding the creation of parameters for the offsite industry could include waste reduction, increasing efficiencies, lowering cost, change management, regulation and policy, he says. And he indicates that a positive outcome of the process will be a re-set in thinking about offsite construction.

“Traditionally offsite has been conceived around the idea of highly standardised product, which can result in lack of flexibility in application. Instead, one approach we’ll be looking at is to standardise the parts in the product such as connections, services, risers, and so on; but allowing a new design flexibility. In the history of offsite, one failing could well be seen in light of that thinking that everything had to be standardised. In more recent times there’s been an attitudinal shift which means a more flexible approach that uses a parametric kit of parts. A worthwhile investigation might be around the benefits of optimising a hybrid approach. This is already evident in the use of bathroom pods and also much larger elements such as facades.”

“Traditionally offsite has been conceived around the idea of highly standardised product, which can result in lack of flexibility in application. Instead, one approach we’ll be looking at is to standardise the parts in the product such as connections, services, risers. In the history of offsite, one failing could well be seen in light of that thinking that everything had to be standardised. In more recent times there’s been an attitudinal shift which means a more flexible approach that uses a parametric kit of parts.” Professor Mathew Aitchison, Interim CEO, Building 4.0 CRC.

“While the official launch of Building 4.0 CRC has been postponed due to Covid-19, when work does commence we will see lighthouse projects take shape through industry partnerships as a means to test R&D parameters and create a safe testing ground for collaboration and new ideas. Various research programs will deliver new products, services and businesses; new jobs and relationships; new systems, protocols and networks; and ultimately new buildings, precincts and ecologies.”

Forte Apartments, Melbourne – Lendlease.

Between the project’s inception and the anticipated July 2020 start, small and medium sized groups were engaging in discussion and collaboration, an aspect of the project that had necessitated a change of approach in light of the pandemic. Professor Aitchison confirms the initiative has adopted a modified strategy in light of Coronavirus, with some flexibility built in to deal with the evolving schedules of partners.

Daryl Patterson, Chief Product Officer, Lendlease Digital Delivery, told Built Offsite he was excited by Building 4.0 CRC’s potential to leverage collaboration and new technologies to deliver efficient, digitally enabled, customer-centric buildings, embodying a clear opportunity for innovative prefab, offsite and MMC thinking.

And he emphasises that palpable results will be considered the benchmark of success. “Our industry takes notice of real and tangible outcomes. People like to be able to touch and experience projects first hand. As an example from our own business, the discussion around prefabricated timber building really started to gain ground once Lendlease’s Forte Building in Melbourne was completed in 2012 and people could see how it worked.”

“Our industry takes notice of real and tangible outcomes. People like to be able to touch and experience projects first hand. As an example from our own business, the discussion around prefabricated timber building really started to gain ground once Lendlease’s Forte Building in Melbourne was completed in 2012 and people could see how it worked.” Daryl Patterson, Chief Product Officer, Lendlease Digital Delivery.

Patterson explains how the seeds of Building 4.0 CRC were originally sown in 2015, shortly after the foundation of Lendlease’s DesignMake business. “We spent a lot of time travelling around the world and at that time were beginning to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of academic institutions in engaging in a sustained way with industry on new thinking about construction. Recent issues both in Australia and globally meant it was time to look at a systemic failure of our industry to build sustainable, high quality and safe buildings.”

Lendlease has been investing in digital design for two years under the auspices of Lendlease Digital Delivery. But Patterson says the company soon identified the need for a “cross industry ecosystem” encompassing the whole supply chain, that might deal with the challenges facing the construction industry, including that innovative solutions are often confounded by outdated legislation or lack of supply chain transparency.

He believes design automation will be a pivotal element of Building 4.0 CRC.

“Design automation uses an algorithm to design geometrical, standardised items; for example a fire stair that meets the code. For the prefabrication and offsite sector, automation is a powerful tool. Building components can be computer designed with a ‘kit of parts’ approach,” he says. The result is a more standardised output that can be easily comprehended and utilised by a wide range of industry players.

While this methodology shares characteristics with the digitally enabled approach of Katerra in the US, it has an important difference that should prove critical for Australia’s small yet diverse industry. “We don’t believe companies should have to be vertically integrated to achieve high levels of automation and product compatibility. There are so many great companies in Australia doing great things. The idea of Building 4.0 CRC is to create a framework that supports that interoperability. Creating a system that enables collaboration is so important, and will certainly entail the creation of common industry standards for offsite, which is a characteristic of most mature industries. In the wireless technology space it’s a given that most products need to be bluetooth compliant; why is there no equivalent in construction? So one outcome we’re envisioning is a common platform for players to adhere to, made visible by a code or guidelines.”

“We don’t believe companies should have to be vertically integrated to achieve high levels of automation and product compatibility. There are so many great companies in Australia doing great things. The idea of Building 4.0 CRC is to create a framework that supports that interoperability. Creating a system that enables collaboration is so important, and will certainly entail the creation of common industry standards for offsite, which is a characteristic of most mature industries.” Darryl Daryl Patterson, Chief Product Officer, Lendlease Digital Delivery.

He says another important element of Building 4.0 is research collaboration between universities and industry. “The Swedish prefab industry, which is one of the oldest and most advanced in the world, has a long history of this kind of collaboration. Innovative projects don’t get up in Sweden without the involvement of an industry-university partnership.”

While Building 4.0 CRC encompasses the construction industry as a whole, modern methods of construction (MMC) including prefabrication and offsite, look set to play a major role, he says.

“Prefabrication and offsite may not be the solution for all buildings. There will always be demand for more bespoke, designed, statement buildings. But prefab/offsite should increasingly be seen as a well established alternative or “second model” with its own code and compliance regime for schemes including schools, aged care, correctional facilities and more.” ■

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