DEEP DIVE: Now in its third year the Building 4.0 CRC remains firm in industry targets of 30 per cent reduction in production costs, 80 per cent reduction in construction waste and 50 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions. It also aims to create new high-skill jobs and train 7000 apprentices in new technologies. But how does it plan to get there?
The construction sector is an amorphous thing – enormously complex without a clear shape or unified structure. It could also be likened to a ship that once set on a course has trouble changing direction. Yet change the sector must if it is to meet the social, environmental and economic challenges facing us all.
The industry urgently needs to create highly energy efficient buildings using low carbon materials, build far greater numbers of affordable housing, rapidly reduce emissions, and do it all at a lower cost.
A big ask but it can be done, says Mathew Aitchison, chief executive officer of Building 4.0 CRC. The organisation he heads is a 30-partner collaborative initiative co-funded by industry and government, tasked with the job of revolutionising the way buildings are designed and built in Australia.
The only way is through innovation. Labour shortages, rapidly rising building costs and the urgency to address the climate crisis leave no alternative, Aitchison says.
There is no shortage of innovators in Australia, but progress has been hindered by the fragmented nature of the industry, lack of communication between the various sectors and inertia when it comes to leading on innovation.
“There are some amazing technologies and new ways of approaching building here but if you ask the industry who should lead innovation, many will say government and if you ask government, they will say industry.
“As a CRC who brings together research, government and industry it’s not surprising that I say we all need to work together, each with very specific roles. As long as we continue to see finger pointing we’re not going to see any lasting change.”
Facilitating communication between the disparate groups in the sector has become a primary issue because of current circumstances facing the building sector, says Aitchison.
After 10 years of no climate or energy policy, the change of federal government in mid 2022 saw decarbonisation and sustainability firmly on the agenda. At the same time supply chain issues, record inflation and insolvencies in the industry have made for volatile times.
“Standing up in the middle of all those cross currents and saying we need building innovation is not easy but it is the absolutely most vital time to be doing it.”
Now in its third year, Building 4.0 remains firm in industry targets of 30 per cent reduction in production costs, 80 per cent reduction in construction waste and 50 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions. It also aims to create new high-skill jobs, training 7000 apprentices in new technologies.
The four broad research themes for the CRC are industrialisation, digitalisation, sustainability and people practices and culture, with overlaps between these.
There are 50 collaborative research projects either active or completed and another 60 proposals in the pipeline. The early projects were mostly scoping exercises designed to explore problems or new ideas. Most current ones are now in the applied phase of working with real materials.
From prefab to human well being
Concepts and technologies being explored by the CRC are wide and varied. Some of the standouts include:
- prefabricated housing solutions
- hybrid timber and steel construction
- low carbon materials including steel and concrete
- application of circular economy concepts to building projects
- modification of existing buildings using digital twin models
- a sustainable affordable housing prototype
- exploring the effects on human wellbeing of natural building materials such as timber in workplace buildings.
The three member universities – University of Melbourne, Monash University and Queensland University of Technology – have considerable expertise and research capacity.
Industry partners cover the gamut of the building sector from manufacturers and building companies to developers and government. Among them are BlueScope, Bentley Homes, Australian manufacturer of structural timber and glulam products Hyne Timber, Japanese owned Sumitomo Forestry and Lendlease.
Collaboration with local innovators such as modularised building specialist PT Blink and research lab and net zero consultancy Finding Infinity is also pushing boundaries.
Digital platforms join the dots
Chris Knapp, research director at Building 4.0 CRC, points to digitalisation as the game changer. AI will also transform many processes and practices in the next decade, he says.
“The future of the construction industry will be characterised by digital platforms that connect the value chain. Using digital fabrication as an example – a team develops a design that goes through to a commercial model. That model is connected to material supply, to carbon data, to codes and performance requirements, to approvals and certification systems,” Knapp says.
“There is also the ability to cost it and track it. The client can see what’s going on and it enables collaboration and transparency. And then we can use technology like blockchain to keep things validated and ensure the data has integrity.”
Building 4.0 aims is to build a culture of innovation through demonstration, to create prototypes so that industry, government and investors can see and understand what is involved and be more prepared to invest in new technologies and approaches.
For example, a digital fabrication demonstration project can engage all the different market participants, such as designers, manufacturers, builders and certifiers, via the digital platform.
“I’m a big believer that there are certain things you can only learn through doing it with your own hands. You need to feel it’s possible, that it’s a credible idea and see why it’s advantageous.”
According to Knapp, in addition to digitalisation and offsite prefabrication, some key technologies with the potential for transforming construction include low carbon concrete and steel, the increasing uptake of adaptive reuse for highrise buildings, mass timber construction and the use of digital twin models for assessing and reconfiguring existing buildings.
He points to Building 4.0’s affordable housing prefabricated prototype project in Western Australia as an exciting example of what the CRC can achieve. Not only is it affordable, the prototype is sustainable, using a hybrid steel structure combined with low carbon concrete.
“This will be built to go to market and commercially utilised. For researchers it is about analysing and assessing the efficiency of this particular building system and parts that go into it and finding ways of improving on that. And ultimately disseminating and sharing that knowledge for others to adopt.”
“We’re also having some pretty active dialogue with three state governments about affordable housing and prefab solutions – trying to get projects up across Victoria, NSW and Queensland.”
Offsite and prefab held back by inconsistent project pipeline
Tuan Ngo, program lead for Building 4.0 CRC and professor in engineering at the University of Melbourne, as well as board member of Prefab Australia, has witnessed firsthand the progress in Australia over the past decade in the use of prefabricated or unitised building systems.
He believes Australia is a world leader in modularised technology but has been held back by technology costs and an inconsistent project pipeline.
His involvement began on the Little Hero project in Melbourne, an earlier adopter of unitised building systems. Designed by architect Nonda Katsalidis and built by modular builder Hickory, the project utilised parallel on and off-site construction programs to reduce construction time by more than six months compared with a conventional build.
The unitised Hickory Building System (HBS) was also used on the 43-storey La Trobe Tower project with impressive results, says Professor Ngo.
Hickory built another project alongside the tower using conventional methods and the two were compared, looking at completion times, on-site methods and waste. La Trobe Tower was completed in two thirds of the time of the conventional building and waste was reduced by 80 per cent.
“We have some very good prefab projects in Australia but the reason we don’t see greater uptake of them is that there are only a few companies that have succeeded,” says Ngo.
“Others have invested in the technology and failed because they didn’t have the necessary output. Technology is not the answer. Volume is the key and a consistent pipeline because unless people can see a considerable number of projects, they won’t invest in something new,”
There are signs this is changing. Partnerships like those with Building 4.0 CRC are seeing governments getting behind prefabricated and modularised construction.
The Victorian government recently announced a change in housing policy including fast tracking of planning approval where the design is standardised.
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There are also some standout achievements in the housing sector, such as a project by Melbourne housing construction company Henley Homes partnering with prefabricated Timber Building Systems (TBS) to get a house to lock up stage in two weeks.
As part of his role at the University of Melbourne, Tuan Ngo is leading a project that will build a researcher network for decarbonising the building industry (RNDBI) after recently receiving a $2 million federal government grant through the International Clean Innovation Researcher Network grants program.
“We are excited to be able to develop this network, which we hope will involve a large consortium of universities, industry and government agencies, with whom we can share knowledge, facilitate research collaborations and create new understandings to tackle the challenges of decarbonising the building industry towards Net Zero by 2050,” Ngo says.
Decarbonisation and lifecycle accountability key drivers
Duncan Maxwell, digital program lead for Building 4.0 and head of the Future Buildings Initiative at Monash University, says the next decade will be pivotal in achieving a much more integrated construction sector.
Decarbonisation and lifecycle developments will be key drivers.
He cites the significant push in Europe in lifecycle accountability, with Denmark this year mandating that every building must have lifecycle certification submitted as part of building regulations. It will be some time before that comes to Australia, says Maxwell, but it will come.
“Digital tools that can handle complexity will develop in areas like carbon lifecycle accounting. Similarly, simple things like project scheduling that have been done with Excel and the site manager’s filing cabinet drawer will be done using digital tools.
“Through the use of connected digital data in building delivery we’re likely to see tools emerge that are able to give the traditional industry the confidence to move forward.
“A lot of the blockages rest on the fact that conventional training and knowledge in construction is already tested and that is perceived as being certain.
“We have to demonstrate that digital technology and tools that are emerging can also deliver certainty. Then the workforce can be transitioned into a new way of working.”
The problem around AI – and the benefits
There is also wariness around AI. While there is no doubt it will impact the construction sector, as long as the research and development are undertaken within the sector and it factors in social and cultural implications, the benefits of AI are huge, Maxwell says.
These include optimising decision making by landing on the best solution, improving site safety and accelerating design by handling time consuming analytical chores.
“It should be seen as an aid to human endeavour and productivity,” says Maxwell.
Generative design tools are hugely exciting. Colleagues worry about them removing creativity but I see them as enhancing creativity.
“Generative design tools are hugely exciting. Colleagues worry about them removing creativity but I see them as enhancing creativity. We’re able to have an idea, test it to see if it’s buildable and then get back to the creative idea.”
Machine learning tools that utilise large language models, similar to the AI-powered language model ChatGPT are emerging in the sector to aid with building product specification.
Currently, architectural specification writing is long and laborious but these tools scan the internet for building product data providing specifiers with technological support and checks and balances.
“This will drive a lot of innovation around building design so the industry can move to net zero sooner than later,” says Maxwell.
“These AI machine learning tools will help support decision making, help us move quicker as an industry to that future footing.”
Offsite and productised building approaches
A shift to productised building approaches and offsite manufacturing will also provide certainty of delivery.
According to Maxwell, there is a lot of government interest already in off-site construction. Examples include the Victorian government’s digital build strategy and offsite production guide, which is under development, and the NSW government’s offsite school building program.
The NSW schools program
In 2022 the NSW government announced it was investing $15 billion in school building, partnering with the construction industry to develop the pavilion model, to dramatically cut delivery times of schools. Pavilions are designed and constructed offsite and assembled in a matter of weeks on the school site, saving time and construction costs and minimising disruption.
“Industrialised building can help deliver more buildings, including housing by utilising off-site, utilising more advanced design approaches and streamlining building delivery in terms of construction logistics and supply chain management. This Increases capacity across the value chain,” Maxwell says.
“I see it as delivering on the pipeline but also getting the industry ready to decarbonise. This has flow on benefits to customers in terms of affordability and certainty about delivery times.”