Are prefabricated houses the answer to our affordability problem?

Peter ChittendenNovember 5, 20140 min read

As we struggle with a housing market where supply is limited and affordability is under pressure with first time buyers facing an up-hill battle, should we being looking to prefabricated buildings as a bigger part of the solution?

Would the use of prefabricated buildings also speed up the approvals process, deliver projects quicker and save money for the entire industry and community?

We already know that many other industries have had to rationalise the design and manufacture of their products, so why not the housing market?

Certainly according to PrefabAUS the peak body for Australia’s off-site construction industry, the answer is yes and there are many examples of stunning prefab homes being designed across the world. In the USA, prefab has moved into the highrise market.

On their website, PrefabAUS outlines the organisations mission statement as: “Our mission is representing, showcasing and advancing the industry through collaboration, innovation and education”.

They then go on to suggest that the time for off-site construction has arrived, with ongoing work to grow local knowledge and capability.

The name prefab is short for prefabrication, it’s a snappy and clever way to bring the idea into the modern age of development and I think works well to reposition this section of the market.

However, because there is no up to date or accurate research available, we are unable to judge the extent to which prefab contributes to the housing market. Still PrefabAUS has a wide range of members including manufacturers, architects, suppliers, and engineers with (as might be expected) architects making up the biggest number of members.

This Is Not A New Idea

As PrefabAUS detail on their website the idea dates back to AD43 when the Romans used the technology. In Australia, Corio Villa Geelong was a home prefabricated in Scotland and erected in Geelong in 1855-6, while in 2010 the now familiar name Sekisui Homes, Japan’s largest prefab builder, arrived in Australia.

Lend Lease have completed building the world’s tallest timber building in Melbourne with the use of prefab CLT (cross-laminated timber) panels. For Lend Lease, the success of the project helped the company win the contract to construct the nearby $20 million Docklands Library and Community Centre. Both buildings use CLT panels made of European Spruce. Each panel is 16 metres by 3 metres and they are easy to ship and assemble on-site.

While the Lend Lease Forte Building was the first to use CLT in Australia, the technology is used in many European centres.

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The Modern Prefab

While the Lend Lease example is a good one, we need to ask if the modern prefab can deliver what buyers want, there has been a lot of work done in this area, in particular overseas with micro-housing and sustainable housing. And there are some great homes made, as on-off container homes.

There is a long history associated with prefabricated design but most current work in this area is helping to deliver what might be market acceptable options. For many decades architects have been designing factory prefab houses that aim to combine the lower costs of mass production but still delivering the buyer a good design and quality construction.

Given concerns over supply and affordability it might now be the time to re-visit the dreams that some planners and architects have of using prefab homes on a mass scale. Because if we avoid complicated construction and find the right balance between quality and price, and the planners embrace the idea, then prefab should have a more mainstream future.

World’s Tallest Modular Building Hits a Hurdle – But The Future is Still one of Promise

However new building methods do not always run smoothly. At the Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn New York, the world’s tallest prefabricated modular tower has run into some problems and according to the New York Times, the modular technology is being ‘dumped’ for the next three towers.

The developers have reported trouble working out all the kinks on the factory floor to deliver a tubular steel chassis of 145 fully equipped apartments. A further three new buildings in the project will be using conventional construction.

According to published reports, after gaining code approvals there has been a learning curve on the project. According to local architects, this was only to be expected. The developers are, according to the New York Times, planning to return to modular construction for future stages.

The New York example simply highlights the fact that any new building method is complicated, you have to change the culture among planners, governments, builders, unions and architects and be an innovator like the Lend Lease example in Melbourne, we need innovation.

More time, more planning and innovation might well be required to see if there is the potential for prefab options to have a transformative effect on the housing market, with the promise of quality, improved affordability and a workable option for developers.

Peter Chittenden

Peter Chittenden is managing director for residential of Colliers International.
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Peter Chittenden
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