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21 November 2018

An Update on Prefab Perceptions Today

prefab wall

PrefabNZ is at the heart of innovative construction in New Zealand. We represent 350 Member organisations across the nation and throughout the built environment delivery chain, from specifiers (architects, designers, engineers) to makers (builders, manufacturers, distributors) to research (and other building professionals). Check them out in the PrefabNZ directory

PrefabNZ started in 2010 to connect innovative construction products with specifiers. In the past eight years, we have traversed historic misperceptions (thanks to temporary school classrooms and the UK post WWII portable housing programme) through to a new era in digital fabrication where computers drive design and manufacture functions.

Along the way we responded to the Canterbury earthquakes with the country’s first HIVE Home Innovation Village to showcase a range of prefabrication typologies (component, panel, volume and complete) to industry, public and government alike.

More recently, we ran a design competition for a smart, efficient and sexy secondary home, in your backyard. Together with Auckland Council and many other supporting partners, we believe that New Zealanders should have more than one pathway towards home ownership. When the size of the home is reduced, existing land is used and construction technologies enable time-savings, a new understanding of affordability can be explored.

Just like the original Railway Houses or Bay Villas and Bungalows, the SNUG homes are available in a catalogue for the public to choose from. Twelve SNUG home finalists, including six winners, an International Judge’s Choice and a People’s Choice are showcased in the latest Defign magazine. Pick it up in a supermarket near you or check out the online SNUG home selections.

All this innovative offsite construction action has caught the attention of the industry, government and public. Mayor Goff awarded the SNUG home finalists and winners at the November ‘Garden Party’ in Auckland. Minister Twyford addressed PrefabNZ’s annual CoLab event in 2018 citing 50% of KiwiBuild homes would be prefabricated. Even the group housing builders are starting to sing the praises of offsite manufacture (OSM) by joining the pre-assessed panels of providers for Housing NZ and KiwiBuild. Before we know it, the pre-nail roof truss and wall frame fabricators will be churning out panels that can be assembled at site into a watertight structure in a single day — just like they build ‘em in Sweden.

Whoa! We’re not quite at that last point of industry transformation yet, but Fletchers is establishing a panelised factory and joining PrefabNZ, so a tipping point of sorts has been reached.

The reasons for action are clear; construction worldwide has an appalling productivity record. The Financial Times cites, “productivity growth in UK construction has averaged just 0.4% per year, compared with 3.2% in manufacturing." As Mark Farmer of British Cast Consultancy says, “the construction industry is one of the last to embrace modernisation.”

Farmer was the author of the 2016 ‘Modernise or Die’ report which has influenced policy at both a national British government level as well as the Mayor of London’s office. He spoke at PrefabNZ’s CoLab in 2018 and addressed the Industry Transformation Agenda — and will be updating CoLab 2019 with his work chairing the committee for finance, insurance and assurance that reports in to the UK Minister of Housing.

The 2018 CoLab Highlights reel catches Mark saying, “We are losing more people through retirement than we are gaining through new entrants” — a sad indictment for an industry that is marred by misperceptions of working outdoors in the muck and rain, where brawn counts for more than brains. But times are a-changin’ and under Minister Salesa’s leadership, MBIE has a major skills focus which is seeing sector groups like the Construction Industry Council establish sub-committees to find new ways to attract the right blend of digital skills, management ability and a wider range of gender representation into the built environment.

There are other beacons of hope on the horizon. The worldwide infatuation with engineered timber products has to play into New Zealand’s hands. Kiwi locals from W&R Jacks established the first cross-laminated timber factory in Nelson called XLam. It’s now owned and run from over-the-ditch where a large mega-factory has since been built for scaled production. Other design-build consultancies like Tallwood have sprung up from local urban development expertise coupled with established manufacture from the Stanley Modular folks. Central Otago now hosts New Zealand’s only homegrown Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) at NZSIPs. While other timber giants like Red Stag, have announced investment plans for central North Island CLT manufacture.

We also have an internationally revered engineering and architecture community as exemplified by the recent NZ Wood Timber Design Awards, where I was honoured to be a judge. On your next trip to Wellington you must visit the overall winner at the National Library in Molesworth St, just up from the Beehive. There you will experience He Tohu designed by PrefabNZ Members Studio of Pacific Architecture, a digitally carved masterpiece that now houses our three most important founding documents including the suffragette petition and the Treaty of Waitangi.

My last point goes to the disruptors; we’ve all been waiting for the Uber of construction to really blow the old establishment out of the water. You may have seen the articles about Google / Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and their plans for the Toronto Waterfront. We were lucky to visit their offices in Toronto earlier in the year as part of a NorAm visit with our friends at prefabAUS (the Australian equivalent of PrefabNZ). And many of you will have seen the recent news that Amazon has bought Plant Prefab,

Closer to home, PrefabNZ Members are responding to KiwiBuild’s Invitation to Pitch (ITP) for a mid-November deadline. One member, TOA Architects has detailed their disruption outline in their latest blog here.

PrefabNZ will continue to be leading the innovative construction space as we diligently work towards smoothing the pathway for the established early-adopters and the expanding disruptors — particularly in key areas such as procurement, consenting and finance.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments or thoughts [email protected]

Written by Pamela Bell, founder of PrefabNZ.
Pamela is a consultant for innovation in the built environment. For more information, visit her website.

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