We examine the evolving relationship and creative tension between architects and the offsite construction sector. Moderated by Belinda Smart (Built Offsite) and the panellists were: Fraser Paxton, founder of Fraser Paxton Architects; Mario Posala, Studio Design Manger, Arkit; David Saunders, founder of architectural studio S2S Design; and John Baxter, Project Manager, SENSUM.
BELINDA: Welcome, everybody, and thanks for joining. I’d like to kick off by lighting a fuse under this conversation with a truism that’s often mentioned in the industry: that architects are reluctant to engage with the offsite construction sector. Mario, what’s your take on that?
MARIO: Well, I think there’s a preconception that prefabricated architecture or prefabrication leads to restrictions around what you can do and you’re restricted to certain module sizes, and if you got this preconception that everything has got to be boxy, but in reality, you are really only limited by your imagination. I mean, there are some design parameters to adhere to, but it’s more of an opportunity than a restriction. A prime example of a top tier architect in Melbourne who’s used prefab would be John Wardle and a passivhaus residence in Toorak. We were subcontracted to the builder to provide all the wall panels. That was an extremely complex building.
When you look at it, the last thing you think of is that it was prefabbed. That’s probably a prime example of how architects can engage with prefab.
BELINDA: Were you directly engaged with that project?
MARIO: I wasn’t directly engaged. We were subcontracted to do shop drawings and fabricate wall panels. We were given a model from Wardle Architects. We took the model, abstracted all the wall components, the roof components, and the floor components, and developed them into shop drawings. All the detailing was done by Wardle’s. Being passivhaus, the detailing was quite complex; connection details were quite advanced. So, we took all that and developed it into what we call shop drawings or fabrication drawings. We divided the panels up and drew each as a cassette. The whole thing was actually built in a factory. All the connections were made and then it was disassembled and put onto the back of a truck.
BELINDA: Essentially you’re designing a manufactured product but there wasn’t a huge difference in terms of the skillset required. David, you’ve had some engagement in this space. Can you tell us about your experience?
DAVID: Yes, however my first comment is that I totally disagree with the premise that architects are reluctant to engage because I’ve been interested in prefab for almost three decades now. It’s something I introduce as a concept to new clients probably in the first meeting. If someone’s talking about an addition to a house, I talk about considering prefab from the outset, primarily due to minimising the messing around onsite, and disturbing neighbours, and getting the job done onsite as quickly as possible. It is something I wholeheartedly embrace.
I did have concerns that developing a more boutique project might not be practical for prefab. But recently, I’ve been working on a design for almost three years for a house which is essentially the shape of a nautilus shell. It’s in the middle of the forest on the top of the mountain. I thought prefab would be a great idea because getting trades to go to the middle of the forest and build a house seemed like a crazy idea. Ultimately what impressed me about prefab was the capability of what you can do with it. There was no limit, really.
BELINDA: John, what’s your experience?
JOHN: I don’t see any reason why prefab can’t be as bespoke as is required for a project. Obviously, there are modules, there are sizes, there’s transport to consider and so forth. But if you think about if you’re building a conventional house/school/library or whatever, prefab is just about shifting where a building is put together. It’s encouraging to hear that with ingenuity and originality, you can push boundaries. I think there’s probably a preconception within the industry, within architecture itself, and in the general public. But I’m not surprised to hear that plenty of architects are excited about it.
BELINDA: Fraser, you’re doing research into this space and you’ve also worked in your own practice with panellised solutions. What’s your experience been?
FRASER: Mixed, to say the least. I think some of those preconceptions extend to the general public as well about prefab because there is a lot of, I guess, that idea of boxiness. Prefab, historically, hasn’t been seen as a good solution, but then if you go further back to the early 20th century, architects were inventing systems then. I think now we are seeing more of a creative expression in the prefab movement which is good. It’s really encouraging. I think it’s just a matter of time before people do understand that it doesn’t have to be a box. It can be whatever you want it to be.
BELINDA: Can you just talk to us a little bit about your research? Does that talk to this discussion?
FRASER: It does a little. My research is on manufacturing processes within offsite construction and making them efficient but understanding the parameters. You can bring that knowledge back to the design stage, so that when you’re designing, you have the freedom to design within a code or a framework that might allow you to manufacture efficiently.
You could still create a building and then have to go through an extensive redesign of the process to make it buildable offsite. Quite often, it’s only a couple tweaks you need to make to the form of a building to bring it back to something that can be manufactured efficiently. So, I’m looking at an in-depth understanding of that manufacturing process from start to finish in factory and trying to tie that to the front end of the process.
BELINDA: Are you hoping that your findings will be turned into a guide for builders and architects in terms of how to interface with manufacturers?
FRASER: Well, for both, actually. I think it’s got to go both ways too. It’s a guide for manufacturers on how to create complex buildings offsite, but also a guide for architects and designers on how to design for manufacture.
BELINDA: One thing that occurs to me, as architects of a certain vintage, do you feel that going forward the education system might need to change to drive this argument about offsite construction more effectively? So the architects are almost being trained as manufacturing designers or product designers to interface a lot more effectively with the process?
JOHN: Does construction method drive design or does design dictate construction method?
BELINDA: Very good point.
MARIO: I think it’s important to have an understanding of both. I mean, I think it’s very important as an architect. So, if you have a better understanding of the manufacturing techniques, and how you can efficiently design something, then I think that information will feed into better and better design. The better we can manufacture, the better we can design.
FRASER: It’s almost like we were taught on traditional construction techniques. I think we do need to move forward to teaching young people coming through now more advanced ways to engage with manufacture.
DAVID: I think it’s important to make sure they stay on top of the traditional ones too.
JOHN: I agree with the architectural profession, the education system does need to pick up on this. There’s probably a great opportunity for architects. In some ways, there’s better potential than ever for that understanding to be developed. Obviously, educators need to pick up the challenge of making giving that some practical applications.
FRASER: And the software companies are really getting on board with this.
DAVID: In terms of education and what’s being taught at universities at the moment, I think it’s quite weak in that regard. Certainly in architecture there aren’t many courses or there may be a module or unit that talks about design and technology, but I think it should be more of a compulsory process in which technology and current technology is taught.
BELINDA: Is there a sense that architecture is still seen as primarily as an aesthetic process and that that perhaps needs to shift in order to give architects a more proactive role in this exciting new? That was a leading question I suppose.
MARIO: I’m interested in what David has to say about that because he’s got quite a strong opinion on design leading construction.
DAVID: It just goes back to what I was saying before. Do construction methods dictate design or vice versa. I think where I’ve had a lot of success with my business is that I’ve always been hands on. I’ve built stuff personally, and I have a very thorough understanding of construction. I’m never thinking about particular construction method as I’m designing, but once I have come up with a concept that I’m looking at, I’m thinking how could this be built and what are the options?
So, with the building I was referencing before that was a nautilus shape, a fascinating thing that came out of the process. I went out to three very different builders, and I didn’t tell any of them how I wanted this building built. I just gave them tender drawings. A fascinating thing that came out of that process …well, two fascinating things came out of it. The first is that everyone’s price was almost the same. What was even more fascinating was that one builder was proposing totally offsite prefab modules, the second builder prefab elements assembled onsite, and the third builder a solution that was totally fabricated onsite. I would have thought there’d be a huge variation in cost and there wasn’t.
BELINDA: So who did you go with in the end?
DAVID: Totally prefab for the reason that it was working with passive house system.. I felt more confident about the level of quality we could achieve.
BELINDA: Was the speed of construction an issue for that project?
DAVID: They all proposed a similar timeframe. It’s just that with the prefab, time onsite was far less, which is not so relevant in the middle of a forest, but very relevant for building…
BELINDA: …In a city, yes. John, you deal with architects in your project management role with Sensum. What are your thoughts?
JOHN: I think that there is a growth in understanding by architects and manufacturers and module builder advocates how they complement each other’s roles in delivering a project. I guess one of the characteristics is that more often, you find a design and construct approach in the offsite space. In terms of managing overall projects, that creates some new challenges. I think it’s the responsibility of both the architects and the manufacturers to develop the right sort of language.
BELINDA: So there’s some risk to taking an old school approach and then trying to reverse engineer it to become an offsite solution?
JOHN: Look, sometimes the process itself now requires that quite often it’s your contractor that builders engage first and then they engage the architects.
MARIO: I think it’s a great way to work and I actually promote clients to engage a builder especially if they’ve got someone in mind. I think it’s a fantastic way to work because you’re not going two steps forward, one step back. You’re just moving forward together and there’s a lot of time saving and efficiency in that process.
BELINDA: Can I ask the panel generally, do you find many clients are interested in offsite construction or is it just the finished building that’s of interest to them?
JOHN: Well I think in the institutional sector where Sensum does a lot of its work, they are very used to it, and I think that the appetite for it is increasing. There are some great examples and good outcomes in terms of budgets and timing in particular.
BELINDA: Could architects play a greater role as a critical part of the specifying process?
JOHN: I think it’s part of the learning process for the architects, but it’s equally a learning process for the contractors, the fabricators, because they often haven’t been used to engaging with architects. I’d say there’s much to be done on that side, to be honest.
BELINDA: How do you feel that learning could best take place? I mean, is it on the job or does it need to be codified somehow? What does the future of the architect’s role look like?
JOHN: I think the tools of how they deliver will just become something else. But I think it will not even take 30 years. I think in 10 years or 15 years, the majority of architects and of the industry will just see it as a way to deliver buildings. The distinction that we are obviously grappling with now will be so irrelevant. You’ll still need to conceptualise. You need to detail. I think offsite fabrication had to level with precision and requires a greater level of resolution at an early stage. That’s something that architects have always been equipped to do.
BELINDA: And probably would be happy to do.
JOHN: They’d be happy to do so because they get greater control over the design.
BELINDA: Do any of our panellists want to share personal views or “gripes” so to speak with the challenges you’ve encountered in this space?
FRASER: I think it depends on the type of prefab you’re using. I’ve had a lot of barriers, I guess, from using panelised SIP-based construction where contractors hate it. It’s something new. They don’t necessarily understand it.
BELINDA: Yes, it doesn’t have a lot of uptake in the Australian market yet.
FRASER: I’ve done a handful of projects over the last few years, but they’ve been painful unnecessarily more because your trades onsite will look at it and say “Well…”
BELINDA: …”What do we do with that?”
FRASER: Yes, and so, I get hands on with them, but even then, quite often, it seems preferable to walk away. You can speak of all the advantages of building with an airtight structure and something goes towards passive, but if they don’t want to build that way, it’s very hard to get them to.
BELINDA: Well, we’re going to a bigger discussion now. But I mean, that changes the realm of trades as well, obviously.
FRASER: It does in a way. I’ve got a house going which we built in about three days and the contractor doesn’t understand their role. It’s really about walking them through step by step which parts of what they used to do, which parts they’re now doing, because I guess their scope is a little bit reduced because the prefab company is doing it.
BELINDA: Yes, has done a bit of the work already
FRASER: Although we’ll be assembling the whole building and the builder has to step in and just do small tweaks. It’s just not the traditional trusses and wall frames. It’s all pre-finished inside and outside wall from the roof just comes in bang, bang, bang, and you’re done
BELINDA: Are there instances where from a design perspective, it really doesn’t make sense to use offsite construction from the aesthetic or design?
DAVID: It depends on the building. If you’re adding to an existing building, for instance, and you’ve got to hold a particular roof shape for a planning reason, prefab may not always be possible depending on the existing structure. But if you’re dealing with new builds, then absolutely. I’d advocate there’s no scenario where prefab isn’t applicable.
BELINDA: In closing, I’d like panel members to give me your key takeaways in terms of how architects can engage with this space and how to drive that uptake.
JOHN: I would encourage architects to persevere. I don’t think it’s going to take away from the creativity of buildings in the future, but we’re in a transition time, so you’ve got that resistance to change on the side of clients and builders and suppliers and everything else. There are some mountains to climb, but I would just say that it’s definitely got great potential.
BELINDA: Do you think acceptance is fairly broad within the architectural community?
MARIO: It’s definitely accepted now. I think it’s the way to the future, and I think that change needs to happen at the base, and it needs to happen at universities. Architects need to be educated about this new building typology and that’s what it is, it’s a new format.
BELINDA: It’s the new normal.
DAVID: I think it’s very important to separate good design and construction methods. I don’t think it’s good practice to be even thinking too much about what the construction methodology is going to be when you are designing. But just from my experience, I’ve been teaching and one of the first things I’ll tell my students is: “Put your computer away. I don’t want to see any CAD-generated drawings or designs for the first three or four weeks. I want to see ideas on paper.” Unfortunately, what I’m seeing in studios and also what I see in the building environment is not human-generated designs but computer-generated designs. It doesn’t need to go that way.
BELINDA: No, but you see that as a potential risk with, yes, embracing this thinking too wholeheartedly?
MARIO: There’s a fine line but, you know, it’s about restrictions versus opportunity; it’s about understanding the difference. Usually that’s how design or architecture schools run; you get your creative juices flowing in the first couple of years. You want to design stuff then later on in the five-year degree, you should be able to come out with a fair knowledge of how to build a building and how a building comes together. People are graduating and they don’t know anything about construction or how a building comes together and then they’re meant to just go out and learn that in the work place after five years.
BELINDA: Fraser, your parting observations?
FRASER: Probably just on the importance of continuing gaining knowledge of more advanced manufacturing techniques. When you know how to design, I agree that that’s critical for architects and should remain unrestricted. But if you know how to manufacture as opposed to build, that’s also useful. I’d also like to stress the importance of looking abroad; look at what people are doing overseas. There are some pretty spectacular things happening in Japan and Sweden; particularly in Japan where they’ve taken manufactured housing to a whole new level. I think there’s a lot that we can learn collectively as a profession.
BELINDA: Thank you all very much for taking part in the forum.
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