Prefab sector gets a new $4 million research centre

Australia’s prefabricated building sector has received a major boost with the Federal Government awarding $4 million to the University of Melbourne to establish a new research and training centre.

News of the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing has the university’s phone lines running hot with inquiries from across the design, engineering, construction and prefabrication sectors.

The ARC  is being established as a collaborative venture that will see Melbourne University partnering with University of Sydney, Curtin University of Technology, Monash University, industry body PrefabAUS and companies including Tektum, Amoveo, Prebuilt, Origination, Memco and CIMC Modular Building Systems.

It will be led by Dr Tuan Ngo and Professor Priyan Mendis from Melbourne University’s Department of Infrastructure Engineering. Professor Mendis said sustainability will be a major focus of research into new materials and manufacturing processes.

Lightweight materials such as composites, nano materials and bio-based polymers will be researched as alternatives to the use of Portland cement. Professor Mendis said the use of lightweight materials is also key in terms of prefabrication delivering high rise buildings, as it is difficult to lift heavy modules that incorporate cement.

“We will also be using advanced manufacturing techniques. There are a lot of things that can be done in a factory.”

The advantages of factory-based construction also include protection from weather and being able to work around the clock. This means receiving truck deliveries at night, avoiding congestion issues and limitations on truck movements in Sydney and Melbourne for deliveries to building sites.

“The quality of work done in a factory is also a lot better,” Professor Mendis said.

He said discussions were already underway with automotive manufacturers about how the prefabrication sector could re-use industrial properties, equipment and labour that was being made redundant.

“There is a lot of skilled labour [in the automotive sector] and high precision workers and these skills are directly transferrable. There may be the need to develop minor training programs, but that will be part of our research.

“We can see how we can use that vast manufacturing resource of the car industry.”

Negotiations are currently taking place to use a former automotive manufacturing site to create a prototype operation. Professor Mendis said there was already a number of existing prefabrication factories and the goal was to go bigger.

While the ARC’s primary focus is housing, he said the research will not confine itself to residential buildings alone but would look at how the prefabrication process could be applied to other property types. This will relate particularly to high rise building, as currently prefab is mostly occurring for low and medium rise developments.

Some of the techniques the ARC will be looking to develop further include “flat pack” type systems that can be transported to site and assembled and also “click” systems, where all the components click together onsite. These systems could comprise materials such as a steel shell which is then filled with aerated concrete.

Another key focus of the research will be how to develop prefab that can be quickly and efficiently dismantled and recycled or re-used elsewhere at end of life.

The ARC is funded for four years and will support six post-doctoral fellowships and 14 PhDs. Professor Mendis said these research positions would be embedded within industry bodies and companies.

“The government is putting a lot of focus on industry rather than blue-sky research,” he said.

Research is expected to commence within the next three to six months, with contracts currently being signed with stakeholders.

The news has gone through the industry rapidly, Professor Mendis said, with a constant stream of phone and email inquiries to the university from prefab companies, builders, architects, engineers and others keen to participate.

The university’s pro vice-chancellor for research partnerships and external relations Professor Mark Hargreaves said the university was proud to lead the delivery of innovation and excellence through the ARC.

“The centre will secure the Australian industry’s competitive advantage leading to local employment growth and increased exports of prefabricated products and services,” Professor Hargreaves said.

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