The New World of Modular Housing

Modular housing has already taken off in Europe, but as developers in Australia begin exploring this cost and time effective construction method, sourcing quality material in line with Australian regulations and standards is still proving a challenge, writes Sophie Loras.

 
In a world in the not so distant future, it won’t be uncommon for homeowners when selling their block of land, to take their existing homes with them.
Or vice-versa, being able to sell the home itself and replacing it with a ready made, possibly second or even third-hand home, onto an existing block of land.
 
Welcome to the new world of modular housing.
 
Melbourne architect Joburt Betadam, Director of Architektonic, says these types of scenes are only going to become more common in Australia as developers and consumers look for more time and cost effective solutions to housing.
 
Mr Betadam paints a picture of convenience. In the world of modular housing homeowners will be able to add or sell pieces of their homes as they upsize and downsize during the different courses of their life. Just like a jigsaw.
 
And it won’t just be homes. Modular housing will extend to office blocks, apartments and high-rise buildings.
 
The big advantage for modular solutions is time savings – the construction side itself may not save money, but the time savings certainly will, says Mr Betadam, making modular solutions very appealing to developers.
 
But Mr Betadam says perceptions of modular solutions in Australia still have some way to go.
 
“Modular solutions are traditionally made from steel which is not traditionally viewed as an option for Australian homes which are traditionally timber,” he says.
 
He says there is a perception that steel won’t last or that it will rust and that it’s not good looking and is associated with trailer parks.
 
But in the past 12 months the modular solutions environment has begun changing rapidly.
 
Channel 4’s Grand Designs has featured a number of modular homes in Europe, spiking interest. Meanwhile, developers sourcing modular units for the global mining boom are now looking for new projects as the market turns.
 
Many of these developers are now looking at China to source their modular solutions but there remains one significant challenge impeding the low cost virtues of the modular world. Quality.
 
Mr Betadam says Australians invest a lot into their home, borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank to own their dream home, “and quality is a big aspect of that.”
 
He says Chinese factories are yet to factor this in and it is echoed across the industry.
 
Ross Pelligra, the CEO of the three-generation Pelligra Family Group says he is struggling to source good quality modular solutions for a number of his projects in Australia.
 
While sourcing modular units from China presents a significant opportunity to reduce costs, any savings are currently off set by the increased costs on site in Australia when bringing the units up to Australian regulatory standards.
 
Mr Pelligra says China is still playing catch up in the technology, resources and understanding of Australian and international regulatory standards for the modular sector. He is yet to secure a contract with a Chinese manufacturer for modular units.
 
“We are finding that Chinese owners are not investing in the R&D for modular formats,” says Mr Pelligra.
 
Currently Mr Pelligra’s projects rely on Chinese sourced pre-fabrication materials, but this still requires significant costs for the onsite assembly. Ideally the business would like to be sourcing more cost effective modular solutions from China.
 
“We are looking at coming to China and setting up our own system with Australian engineers and architects because currently the Chinese plumbers and electrical engineers don’t have an Australian understanding of our standards and regulations and these are the hardest obstacles.”
 
Michael Lucas, the Chief Operating Officer of Green Building Solutions, has a long history with the Chinese and international building and construction sectors.
As one of the Australian-part owners of GBS, Mr Lucas’s company is addressing the shortage of high quality, internationally standardized modular solutions being manufactured from China – specifically the opening of a new purpose built modular production line for the Australian Market.
 
“While technologies have advanced greatly over the years in relation to commercial and industrial buildings (particularly in relation to offsite pre-construction), little has changed with regard to residential development,” says Mr Lucas.
 
“We looked at the various forms of modular and prefabricated construction and there are pro’s and con’s for the various products in various markets so we developed a hybrid product we call ComFab (Completely Fabricated) which uses the best of the modular and prefab products – that is as much work is done in the factory as possible and it is able to be shipped using standard high cube shipping containers.”
 
A common trend in China currently for the modular solutions sector is to fly in Australian plumbers and engineers for short periods of time to complete units ready to meet Australian regulatory standards.
 
GBS however, employs a full time Australian certified plumber, electrician and builder onsite at its Chinese factory.
 
“We believe this delivers a far superior product than the normal fly in fly out inspectors and our Australian trades people provide on the job training daily rather than a monthly “compliance” visit which is adversarial from the outset,” says Mr Lucas.
 
He says the modular housing landscape in Australia is changing as the quality of product and demand for new ways to build are sought and factories have sprung up in Australia. He has noticed a greater focus from international fabricators in Thailand and China now paying more attention to the Australian market.modular_ck_design_crystal_gardens_web
 
“The market in Europe is far more mature and older with the first modular and prefabricated companies supplying product some 80 years ago. The quality in Europe has typically been of a higher standard than the first generation of product in Australia, but I believe out of necessity now, the perception is better partly out of improvement in quality and partly due to a genuine need.”
 
Mr Lucas says a deficit in Australian housing has steadily increased over the past five years, in excess of 200,000 dwellings.
 
“Conventional building simply cannot keep up with the demand – and with ever increasing pressure on costs, the need for affordable housing solutions in Australia is getting further out of reach for average Australian income earners,” he says.
 
“Modular in part is seen as possible solution to this increasing problem. Without a doubt with increasing cost savings modular options will offer everyday Australians to live the Australian dream.”
 
Mr Betadam says economic factors, including the global economic downturn in 2008 has been a catalyst in changing the way people have always done things, and that goes for housing. His firm has been working with developers and real estate agents and even local governments, specifically in Victoria, looking at ways to address the shortfall in social housing.
 
“For 5,000 years we have been building with one brick on top of the other – why do we still build in the same way? Surely it is time for a new way forward,” says Mr Betadam.
 
“Modular housing is the Holy Grail of Architecture and is certainly the way of the future.” 
 
 
*Pictured: CK Designworks Crystal Gardens – Melbourne’s first modular high rise.
The 35-storey Crystal Gardens is a residential and commercial mixed use building in the Melbourne CBD and will house landscaped community gardens on every sixth floor with trees up to 10m tall.
While the tower is situated on a 360 m2 block, (about half the size of an average Melbourne house block) the design still allows for large park areas for residents. The building is being manufactured in Australia.
 

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