The MMC Tool Kit

With interest in Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and offsite methodologies on the rise, traditional builders, developers and other project initiators are increasingly looking at how to engage with new approaches. We canvassed experts and trailblazers in the field for their insights.

Trained as a carpenter and now an academic, Perry Forsythe is well positioned to assess the knowledge and skills gaps of industry practitioners in engaging with modern methods of construction (offsite construction). Forsythe is Professor of Construction Management at University of Technology Sydney’s Faculty of Design Architecture and Building. He’s also the creator of UTS’ recently launched Construction as Production program, the aim of which is to educate professionals including construction project managers, design managers, building development managers and architects to think about buildings as manufactured products.

Working out how to convert what is essentially a customised product, a one-off building, to a set of sub-products that can be produced at scale and using reasonably repetitive production methods is critical, he says. And he believes the concept of mass customisation is one of the most useful tools builders, developers and other project initiators can deploy, enlisting the idea of breaking down an overall product or building into modularised sub-products such as panelisation systems, bathroom pods or balcony pods.

“These modules do not have to be perfectly standardised but rather aim to limit variability within an economic and demand driven ‘sweet spot’,” he says. “Variables surrounding these sub-products are therefore easier to manage and convert to larger scale production. Larger scale also makes it worthwhile putting the time and effort into applying concepts such as design for manufacture and assembly or DFMA, which combines design for ease of manufacture of the parts that will form a product, and the design of the product for ease of assembly. By doing this, we become more like industrial designers in reaching for relatively standard approaches to sub-products than can still be configured in many different ways, so as not to overly constrain the ability to customise the overall building.”

Forsythe says builders or developers wishing to engage with modern methods of construction (offsite construction) should bear a number of pointers in mind:

  • Choose to focus on sub-products that have strong and predictable demand suited to repeatable production methods;
  • Adopt principles of mass customisation, but note that these need to be adapted to suit the market context of construction;
  • Act more like an industrial designer and include people like design interrogators and operations managers to help implement this mentality;
  • Don’t overcapitalise, as lack of predictable demand will make it unaffordable to stay in business.

All these insights feed into the more advanced concept of ‘product platforms’ which are commonly used in the car manufacturing business to make multiple models cost effectively, says Forsythe.

“They utilise a limited but very carefully designed kit of core parts for expensive sub-products such as the chassis, motor and so on. We are still quite a long way from reaching this level of sophistication but it is perhaps possible to target such an approach for key cost components in buildings. Such a strategy needs to be applied to high demand building types that fall into relatively repeatable and common design themes; apartment buildings are perhaps a good example of this. For instance, this could clearly apply to the main structure in apartment buildings and could be tailored to suit cost competitive ‘sweet spots’ according to number of storeys, spanability, fire resistance levels and noise attenuation levels.”

Importantly, in order to approach building delivery in terms of manufacturing principles, creating pipeline is needed for modern methods of construction, Forsythe says.

“In the Australian industry there is the need for predictable demand in order to create a business case for moving from traditional methods, towards the economies of scale associated with continuous production and large scale batch production. Creating stable and predictable demand is key and may need some help at industry level to create design guidelines that assist in meeting this need.”

Development and construction consultant and Managing Director of Clark of Works, Dale Clark is a former Director of prefabAUS and has worked with brands including Stockland Lendlease, Baulderstone and Cockram. He says re-framing construction principles is critical as project size, complexity, risk and competition continue to grow. In the traditional ecosystem, “constructors are often asked to carry risk adverse to their ability to control it and project failure and disputes continue to make headlines; all this for relatively small margins,: he says.

So how can constructors further leverage offsite to be successful?

Technology is central to any solution going forward, he says. “The leading edge minority of constructors who are taking thinking in a new direction are embracing technology. They’re leveraging digital to intensify incorporation of offsite solutions, increasing productivity and freeing up their people to focus on customer, strategy, risk, quality and sustainability.”

“The ‘Sydney 2019 Constructathon’ was a brilliant example of our industry sharing. The ‘Hackathon’ brought together traditional construction value chain players, along with universities, start-ups, tech experts, venture capitalists and innovators.”

Clark says constructors need to encourage such technical learning and development on an ongoing basis, enabling their teams the opportunity and time for further formal education and networking; spending ‘non-project’ time visiting manufacturers, talking with designers, technology experts and initiators.

“Like project initiators, constructors will increasingly need to partner with supply chain early, incorporating offsite design elements in the initial phases, rather than defaulting to traditional design and construct processes.”

“The leading edge minority of constructors who are taking thinking in a new direction are embracing technology. They’re leveraging digital to intensify incorporation of offsite solutions, increasing productivity and freeing up their people to focus on customer, strategy, risk, quality and sustainability.” Dale Clark, Managing Director, Clark of Works.

Jamie Coe is Business Development Manager (BDM) at leading privately owned construction company Hutchinson Builders and an advocate of modular building. Hutchinson has delivered a number of modern methods of construction and modular projects across Australia, including custom bathroom pods, specialist health clinics for the public and private sectors and a large scale accommodation building for port workers at Karratha in WA. Hutchinson was also principal construction contractor on Tasmania’s first CLT student accommodation development for UTAS in Launceston.

For builders trying to find a smarter way to build, Coe notes a number of key points to consider when engaging with the modular space for the first time.

Start with the client
“Talk openly with your client during the design phase to gauge their appetite for innovation; will they not just consider it but will they embrace it? Bringing your client on board can be challenging, once their participation is secured, it makes the next steps easier and could offer some protection and positive effects to the rest of your project.

Pay attention to the contract
In the current landscape, a key risk to businesses lies in delays to projects, which result in delayed payments, says Coe. “Having your client on board makes it easier to protect yourself. The contract should include clauses for payment of offsite materials. Depending on the type of product in question, you may need to provide security to receive these payments. This is fair to both parties and will help your cash flow. Be clear and open with your client and make it possible for them to visit your supplier if required, so they can see and touch the product knowing it’s coming to their project in the near future. This will save you both time and money.”

“Generally this process involves an early order, including selection and fit out and a deposit. It’s normally something you can claim against, having given some security.”

Choose your supplier
Coe says sourcing a supplier should be done according to a range of criteria including experience, current workload, location, desired timeline, service and cost.

“Take the time to visit suppliers. Some have large setups and do everything themselves, while smaller operations might procure most of the components offshore, and in some cases mostly assembled, and simply add the finishing touches before sending to you. Some will produce a prototype or an early version for inspection by you and your client. Others will simply produce shop drawings for sign-off before starting to produce your product. Take your time and find the right supplier; remember the early service is important, but also remember that you want to know they will support you for the duration of your building and also future liability during your required warranty period, rather than supplying you and ‘disappearing’.”

A living room filled with furniture and a large window

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Inveresk Apartments, UTAS, interior: 120 apartments, constructed by principal construction contractor Hutchinson Builders, were prefabricated in a nearby warehouse as individual modules before being transported to site and installed using a modular build process.

Analyse the product
“Look at the product and be honest with yourself and your client,” says Coe. “Is the product superior to what you can produce onsite? How much more quickly will you receive it? Where can your and your team’s time be better spent on other elements of the project to lift the overall quality and program period while the product is made offsite? Most importantly, what are the other indirect benefits and savings for you while this is happening? The last one is important and sometimes hard to quantify. Savings in cost as well as time will be there; you just need to factor them in.”

Coe notes that Hutchinson Builders continues to operate in both traditional and modern methods of construction (modular), adding that offsite is still used selectively, depending on the project. In some cases however, a project that started out with a traditional approach can be successfully delivered using offsite construction.

“From simple things like a truss roof system to a detailed timber screen for a window covering on a house, right through to bathroom pods, offsite solutions do offer marked opportunities. For example, a full ward we completed at Logan Hospital measured nearly 1000 square metres and was designed, built and commissioned in 19 weeks. We’ve also worked on multi-level commercial office buildings with the structure built in only a few short weeks. The possibilities are endless, and can save a project time and money and achieve a better quality finish through being built offsite in a controlled environment.”

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