Assessing modern methods of construction

by | Sep 26, 2023 | Building industry technology

Australia’s construction industry could be poised to usher in a new era of innovation through the adoption of modern methods of construction (MMC). Spearheaded by organisations like School Infrastructure NSW (SINSW), MMC is driving positive change, impacting the way schools and other buildings are designed, constructed, and maintained. This article looks at how MMC is transforming Australia’s construction landscape and the vital role that building surveyors can play in its adoption.  

What are modern methods of construction?

MMC is a construction process that leverages off-site manufacturing and assembly techniques to create buildings more efficiently and sustainably than traditional “bricks and mortar” methods. It encompasses various approaches, including modular construction, prefabrication, and the use of innovative materials. Its primary goal is to produce high-quality, sustainable structures in less time and with fewer resources.  

The process was described as a way ‘…to produce more, better quality homes in less time.’ Historically, it developed to meet an urgent demand for residential buildings after WWII and the method became popular again in the early 2000’s as governments looked to alleviate various housing crises which are still present some 20 years later. MMC can be employed to create whole homes using factory-built modules or may be used to speed up building practices through innovative working processes. The methods can be broadly categorised into these key approaches:  

Offsite construction: the assembly of building components in a factory or workshop, followed by transportation to the construction site for final assembly. This approach reduces on-site labour requirements and minimises construction waste.  

Prefabrication: the manufacturing of building components, such as wall panels, floor systems, and roof trusses, in a controlled factory environment. These components are then transported to the construction site and assembled, resulting in shorter construction timelines.  

Modular construction: takes prefabrication a step further by creating entire building modules or units in a factory. These modules are transported to the site and stacked or connected to form a complete structure.  

Advanced building materials: the use of innovative materials, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) or engineered glulam timber (GLT), insulated concrete forms (ICFs), and high-performance glass, can enhance energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of construction projects. 

Here in Australia, modular (volumetric) and the kit of parts are the two primary forms that have gained traction. Further to this, the use of the ‘pavilion’ model has specifically accelerated school construction. Pavilion buildings, designed and constructed offsite, are assembled quickly on school grounds, saving time, costs, and minimising disruption.  

The educational infrastructure revolution  

SINSW is at the forefront of MMC adoption, focusing on the construction of educational infrastructure that aligns with the nation’s ambitions for sustainable and efficient educational facilities. Their goals for this endeavour are:  

  • Creating an emerging and competitive market by championing MMC, fostering competition among construction firms, including regional and SME sized businesses, to offer innovative solutions 
  • Cost and value for money by aiming to deliver projects on time and within budget, ensuring cost-effectiveness while maintaining quality 
  • Workforce development, recognising the importance of workforce skills and job opportunities, with greater adoption promoting training and upskilling, and contributing to economic growth 
  • Greater capability by developing depth and agility across the supply chain that enhances Australia’s construction industry 
  • Engaging industry stakeholders early in the process ensuring risks are allocated to the parties best equipped to manage them 
  • Ambitious standards of quality and safety being maintained throughout the design, procurement, and construction phases 
  • Harnessing inherent productivity gains, contributing to the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce’s work to improve working conditions in the construction sector

The pros and cons of MMC

The use of MMC has the possibility to realise a multitude of benefits including estimated time savings of around 30%, with reduced carbon emissions, material waste and water waste on construction sites, aligning with Government environmental goals. The flexibility and scalability of MMC allows education planners to respond quickly to local demographics and housing developments in areas of rapid growth. It generates new jobs, offers opportunities for local training and upskilling, and enhances safety and productivity in the construction industry. With site safety being of paramount importance, manufacturing building components in controlled factory environments reduces risks and requires fewer on-site interfaces and weather-related delays. A further benefit to schools in this environment is the minimising of disruption to school operations by reducing noise, dust, traffic, and other disturbances.  

Several high-profile projects in Australia have highlighted the benefits of MMC: 

Melbourne’s La Trobe University new student accommodation utilised CLT for its modular construction. CLT panels were manufactured offsite and assembled at site, reducing construction time and minimising environmental impact. 

SwanCare’s Bentley Park in WA which was constructed by ADCO and adopted prefabricated bathroom pods for its aged care facility, reducing on-site construction time and disruption for residents.  

In Brisbane, 25 King is currently the country’s largest engineered timber commercial building. The structure features a hybrid of GLT and CLT elements, reflecting design research into engineered timber technology. The departure from steel and concrete as primary structural elements resulted in a significantly lower carbon footprint, with sequestered carbon locked within the timber structure. 

Further to these, Associate Director Seb Howe, has worked on three groundbreaking projects for MBC Group. Firstly, the innovative building prefabrication strategy delivered by Buildcorp that completed Santa Sophia Catholic College in just 16 months. Then the multiple award-winning Bay Pavilions in Batemans Bay which utilised GLT beams to span the aquatic hall where the longest element was 33 metres and had to be split into three smaller parts for transportation to site. Lastly, the State Significant Development of Gregory Hills Public School which is under construction offsite while temporary demountables are currently in use to make the school operational. The project will be delivered using a kit of parts and combination of systems approach, while the school continues day-to-day activity. Where deemed-to-satisfy fire protected timber is utilised no issues arise, but for exposed elements with a range of fire resistance levels, it presents a complex problem for Seb, requiring a range of performance solutions, testing and assessment, peer review and professional opinion.  

While MMC offers benefits, there are some challenges associated with its adoption. One of the primary barriers is the initial investment required to set up factories or facilities for offsite manufacturing. This capital expenditure can be substantial and may deter market entrants. Furthermore, MMC often relies on a network of suppliers and manufacturers. Any disruptions in the supply chain can lead to project delays and cost overruns. The following reflect the technical challenges that can be encountered;

  • Existing building codes and regulations are often not fully aligned with MMC methods, leading to delays and additional costs for compliance and approvals particularly for fire engineering. Updating and adapting regulations to accommodate innovative technologies is an ongoing challenge.  
  • Transporting large, prefabricated components or modular units to the construction site can be expensive and logistically complex, especially for remote or hard-to-reach locations that are encountered in Australia. If the project size and scale are at the lower end, MMC may not be cost-effective as the benefits are more pronounced in larger, repetitive projects. This can limit its applicability in certain contexts. 
  • While MMC can reduce construction waste and improve energy efficiency, there are concerns about the environmental impact of manufacturing materials and transporting components to the construction site. The sustainability of MMC depends on a range of factors, including the choice of materials and transportation methods. 
  • Determining how risks are allocated among project stakeholders can be complex. Clear contractual agreements and risk-sharing mechanisms are essential to mitigate disputes and project setbacks. Traditional insurance policies and warranties may need to be adapted to accommodate specific risks and issues for MMC. This could lead to increased insurance costs or complexity in obtaining coverage. 

In summary, while MMC offers significant advantages in terms of efficiency, sustainability, and quality, they are not without challenges. Addressing these pitfalls requires careful planning, investment, collaboration, and adaptation of existing practices and regulations. By proactively addressing these challenges, stakeholders can maximise the benefits of MMC while minimising its drawbacks. 

The role of Building Surveyors in MMC adoption  

Building surveyors can play a vital role in technology adoption by ensuring compliance with building codes, regulations, and safety standards. They must collaborate closely with stakeholders to ensure the seamless integration of offsite construction techniques into the traditional construction framework. Their expertise in quality control, risk management (eg fire engineering and performance solutions), and compliance is essential for the successful adoption of MMC in an educational context, contributing to the creation of safe, sustainable, and efficient school buildings that benefit both educators and students.  

The NSW Government has recently sought to create a modular building contractors panel with any interested parties submitting expressions of interest with opportunities for partnerships with building surveyors and other consultancy disciplines to enable bottom-up development of the technology. The benefit of including building surveyors in the initial stages of adoption is that compliance issues can be addressed or managed before development projects are planned. 

There are many businesses looking to drive this kind of market development by creating partnerships and collaborating with like-minded organisations that want to be a part of revolutionising the construction industry by reducing waste and delivering high-quality results. One company that has made this its mission is Green Timber Technology (GTT). Their Director, Pete Morrison, is a leading proponent of new construction technologies having spent time as the Senior Program Manager for MMC at SINSW. When asked what would be needed to improve adoption, his response is “GTT need a holistic approach to gain wider acceptance of our products, this means partnering with a broad spectrum of disciplines that are open-minded to changes in technology and practices, which is one of the reasons we enlisted the support of MBC Group”.

In conclusion, modern methods of construction represent a promising future for Australia’s construction industry, with educational infrastructure projects like those led by SINSW paving the way. MMC’s sustainable and efficient practices, combined with the expertise of building surveyors, hold the key to shaping a construction landscape that is more innovative, resilient, and responsive to the needs of the 21st century. As MMC continues to gain momentum, it will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the extended built environment as well as educational facilities. 

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