Engineering houses in a prefab future Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Housing supply is unable to meet increasing demands in Australia, but we can learn a lot from Europe in the use and manufacture of prefabricated modules, according to civil engineer, Professor Tuan Ngo from the University of Melbourne.

Ngo said countries like Sweden have prefabricated modular housing that makes up 70% of the construction industry. There is “huge demand” in the building industry for new techniques that allow for the development of faster and cheaper construction, according to Ngo, but he said the only way to reduce costs is to reduce the cost of manufacturing.

“The future is going to be prefabricated in terms of infrastructure, so that is why we’re doing a lot of work at the moment to develop our capability in this area,” he revealed.

Prefabrication involves three main types of construction, Ngo explained:

  • Simple elements manufactured to be easily bolted into place on site (beams, columns or other structural parts)
  • Panelised systems designed for rapid assembly and flat-pack transportation (used for walls - and include insulation, utilities, waterproofing, and external and internal cladding)
  • Volumetric systems comprise floor, ceiling and wall components for a single room (three dimensional modular objects).

The Melbourne School of Engineering is leading a new push to grow the prefab market share in the construction industry from 5% to 15% within the next seven years. The university said this will contribute to about 20,000 new jobs and $30 billion in growth so it is supporting the research with full-scale testing and training facilities at its new Fishermans Bend campus. These will include testing for fire safety, wind and cyclones, and acoustics. Energy efficiency will also be tested as well as ability to withstand seismic events.

While prefabricated components in the past were made of similar materials to traditional construction, new generation prefabricated buildings have lighter and stronger structure components, bringing with them new possibilities.

“Prefabrication also offers opportunities to have high performing thermal and acoustic walls, floors and ceilings by combining durable and sustainable materials into systems such as sandwich panels,” Ngo said.

“These days, things can be done much more affordably and efficiently in the factory, but at the moment there is still a lot of onsite work taking place in Australia. That’s why I think quality and safety has been a problem. You can reduce and minimise those risks with prefabrication.”

Ngo says prefabrication could also make a huge societal impact by providing low-cost emergency accommodation in the wake of disasters and for city-based homeless people. The advantage, Ngo explained, is that these structures are reconfigurable, movable and versatile, with an enormous reduction in time to build them.

Prefabrication is also environmentally sustainable, with more upfront planning meaning less waste, less re-work and less material in the finished product. Ngo believes it may be easier to control waste and quality in a controlled factory environment instead of on a building site.


Image: Courtesy of University of Melbourne.