Prefabrication – an idea greater than the sum of its parts

The emergence of offsite construction is a call to action for an industry where sweeping transformation is arguably long overdue, writes Michael Dolphin.

The Macquarie Dictionary’s somewhat clinical definition of the concept at hand states:
verb (t) (prefabricated, prefabricating)

  1. to fabricate or construct beforehand.
    Simple enough, right? It’s said that if an idea can’t be explained in 30 seconds then as a concept it has failed. However, while the idea itself is ingeniously simple, it does engender complexities.
    So, here’s a (slightly extended) take on prefabrication….
    Prefabrication, off-site fabrication, off-site construction or off-site manufacture: there are many terms including the useful abbreviations “prefab” and “offsite” to describe this process, but they are all used to distinguish it from the conventional construction practice of transporting base materials to a site where assembly occurs; instead pre-building part or all of a structure off-site and then transporting it to the site.
    There isn’t one specific material, structure or building methodology these terms are welded to, but they represent a shift in the way people are approaching how they build and align their expectations with that process. Those expectations can be as varied as building off-site to accommodate weather conditions or providing affordable housing.

Our commitment to the industry
With the launch of Built Offsite_Monday it’s important to us that we’re all on the same page, and our editorial team will constantly bring fresh ideas to the newsletter that will capture innovations and current thinking with a view to working hand-in-hand with professionals, institutes and organisations.
Organisations such as the Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, the Structural College of the Australian Institute of Engineers, National Precast Association of Australia, National Association of Steel-Framed Housing and PrefabNZ will bring their perspective to the newsletter.
They all share a common desire to increase the awareness of off-site construction to their own members, while also proactively building bridges to other sectors that will encourage this industry to prosper.

Our Vision
A recognition across the construction industry that building offsite offers opportunities to improve project quality, deliver increased value, improve productivity and support a more sustainable industry.

Our Mission
To work with professional and industry organisations that will collectively bring about a step-change increase in understanding, development and use of offsite solutions in all construction markets.

Our Goals
Championing offsite construction and working with key stakeholders to bring about faster change, and increased awareness raising of the proven benefits of offsite solutions. Challenging the supply side to improve their engagement with clients, designers and constructors, to understand their project needs and to develop and promote efficient solutions.
It’s diverse, it’s interesting and it’s a compelling story. It’s also a story that will shape Australia’s building industry for the coming decades.

Offsite construction will deliver to the building industry
It’s generally accepted that conventional construction processes carried out on-site deliver lower levels of productivity, and with all the relevant trades competing and jockeying for positions,
add a further layer of complexity.
The reasons for this can be neatly captured as the ‘ebb and flow’ of all the labour, equipment and lack of materials as it flows in and out of an already racing tide of ineffective sequencing and management contractors, the time taken to start and stop work, the impact of drying times associated with wet trades and of course, the weather.
Project managers’ on-site time is invariably consumed by day-to-day problem solving rather than time spent defining and implementing ways to improve efficiency and ultimately, better value for the client.
Given the ongoing complexities of managing a traditional construction site, it is challenging to see how the traditional industry will be able to increase levels of site productivity above the 50% which seems to represent current best in class.
Put simply, this means that every dollar of investment capital will at best secure only 50 cents of value. For those projects where capital cost is only a minor consideration this may not matter, but for clients looking to maximise the value of their investment resources it may well be a matter of considerable concern.
The automotive industry wouldn’t tolerate this, the aerospace industry wouldn’t tolerate this, but the traditional construction industry does. There is a clear alternative and that alternative
involves standardisation, design for manufacture and assembly, the application of lean principles and the move to a design and production system based on the assembly of offsite
manufactured components.
Considerations regarding opportunities to increase site productivity represent only part of the business and project case the offsite industry will need to establish in order to make the case for a major expansion in the use of offsite construction methods.
The challenge for the offsite industry is to be able to demonstrate to project decision makers that offsite construction represents a better commercial and project offering in individual circumstances. This will involve a value judgement based on the likelihood of a combination of more predictable construction times on site, superior and more consistent levels of right-first-time quality, more certain performance impacting on cost of ownership and improved sustainability.
The battle will be won on a case by case basis.

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