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What Construction Can Learn from Car Builders

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Standard modular site sheds or mining camp dongas might be what comes to your mind when you think of prefabricated buildings. However, the growing prefabricated building sector is developing capabilities that can deliver architecturally dynamic structures. An example of which can be Australia’s tallest residential tower, Australia 108, currently under construction in Melbourne.

The secret to innovative off-site construction is Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA), Professor James Murray-Parkes, leader of Brookfield’s, Scientific Solutions Group, explains to Jobsite.

Off-Site Advantages 

Murray-Parkes has worked on hundreds of major projects utilising DfMA approaches including the award-winning Perth Stadium as well as numerous residential and commercial buildings, bridges, and large-scale infrastructure projects.

It is crucial the design is specifically created for the manufacturing process and for subsequent assembly on site, he said. It has common ground with the process used by the automotive industry, he explains.

Some of the advantages from a construction perspective is the offsite, factory-based processes are a controlled environment.

“It is controlled for quality, safety and efficiency,” he said. “It is also controlled for damage, so there is low shrinkage or losses due to said damage.”

There is a system to prefab construction. Buildings are designed so that they can be flat-packed, trucked to the site, and quickly erected.

Due to the efficiency of prefab design, there is generally less waste generated, a considerable environmental advantage.

A business-as-usual building site is often simply “organised chaos” with all the trades and subcontractors jostling for space. On the other hand, Murray-Parkes said, a site where a well-designed and managed modular approach is in use is far cleaner. Due to the efficiency of prefab design, there is generally less waste generated, a considerable environmental advantage.

“There is no waste on site, no loose materials around. All the downtime and disruption associated with building happens off-site and even then is drastically minimised.”

He points out that the disruption associated with many conventional approaches has an impact on surrounding residents and businesses, as all the trades and workers jostle for parking, trucks and equipment constantly come and go. Noise and dust also affect the immediate vicinity.

Moreover, the level of activity and a frequent lack of coordination of comings and goings also increase the degree of hazard for everyone on-site. In some cases, it has been responsible for deaths and injuries due to crushing, collision with plant, electrocution, or workers being struck by falling objects.

In terms of the flat-packed building components, Murray-Parkes says they are essentially “no different to pre-cast panels.” The parts can be made of anything compliant to standard building codes. They can have any configuration “so long as you can get it on a truck.”

Here Come the Jobs

Some in the industry may be concerned there could be job losses involved in adopting DfMA approaches, but Murray-Parkes said there are actually more jobs can be created in the factory setting.

These jobs are also safer than on-site jobs and provide a level of stability when it comes to workplace conditions and location encouraging diversity. Women with childcare responsibilities, for example, would benefit from having a job that allows them to use stable and reliable child-care services. People with varying disabilities can also find roles.

Murray-Parkes has tested out the potential for DfMA to create jobs for those with disability. He invented a building system called Power Click for DfMA construction. He partnered with a Downs Syndrome group to see if they could help assemble an entire pilot building project in a Geelong factory.

If you want a sports car, for example, you go to Porsche, not to a company that designs family cars.

For builders looking to make the shift on a project and try DfMA, he advises, the first step is to engage a good modular designer—someone with a background in the automotive industry, for instacne.

There are plenty of Australian architectural and engineering firms who all have plenty of runs on the board in the DfMA space, including Architectus, Ken McBryde’s Architectural Physics group, Arup, Robert Bird Group, TTW and Fender Katsilidis.

If a builder has a preferred architect they work with regularly, the architect could either undertake professional development in the DfMA approach or collaborate with an experienced manufacturing designer.

“It is all about getting the right people,” he says. “If you want a sports car, for example, you go to Porsche, not to a company that designs family cars.”

Compliance Made Easy

The modular DfMA pathway has gained sufficient momentum, so much that Monash University partnered with industry to develop a Code for Modular Construction in 2015.

Co-Founded by Murray-Parkes, the Modular Construction Codes Board, with support from Engineers Australia, Australian Steel Institute, PrefabAUS, and the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources through the former Manufacturing Productivity Networks Program, launched the code in draft form in 2016.

Murray-Parkes and Monash Professor Yu Bai led the development of the code and the majority of authoring of the Handbook for Modular Construction. The Handbook sets out the fundamental methods and considerations for a DfMA project, including how to ensure the construction is compliant with the National Construction Code.

The Handbook for the Design of Modular Structures can be downloaded for free here.

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