Mathew Aitchison who heads up the Building 4.0 CRC has been advocating for a federal building minister for a while now. He also wants to rewrite the way we do construction in this country. After the CRC’s conference at Monash College at Melbourne’s Docklands this week, both those things look closer than ever.

There are times when you see so many collisions of bright ideas that you could swear a new supernova was taking shape. In the construction industry, that’s wishful thinking, maybe. But at Building 4.0’s second annual conference this week it certainly felt that way.

It wasn’t a huge group. Just under 300 people filed into the Monash College auditorium at Melbourne’s Docklands. But if you want to influence the political agenda and generate change these are exactly the kinds of people CRC chief executive Mathew Aitchison would want in the room.

Because change in this sector is not going to be easy. Finally, though, it looks like construction, the last unreconstructed industry – after retail, cars, holidays, and transport have reshaped our lives – might finally be ready.

The need is huge. We need better buildings, we need them to perform better and we need them to be delivered better.

We all know why.

How is the bigger question.

The event on Wednesday was a great start.

IThe audience comprised a well planned cross section of innovators, entrepreneurs, start ups, government and industry bodies.

Underpinning the content and shaping potential directions arrayed for the industry to embark on, were the academics with their evidence based research.

From the opening dinner on Tuesday night and throughout the day on Wednesday the pop of ideas kept coming.

They weren’t just thought bubbles. Here were the people and companies turning new concepts into action in real time.

Judging from the chat between sessions the five keynote speakers from Germany, the UK, the US, Sweden and Austria stole the show. Mostly because they were demonstrating how change can happen.

But what they said landed on fertile ground. It turns out the locals too have been building their own kernels of disruption and innovation.

The event was a mountain of head spinning breakthrough ideas that will provide great material for us to follow up for weeks. 

Here’s just a taste.

The Fifth Estate had a head start in what was about to transpire. At the opening dinner on Tuesday night we were lucky enough to be seated next to Jaimie Johnston, head of global systems for English company Bryden Wood.

Here’s a man who travels the world and speaks to governments about the biggest issues we’re facing.

Johnston is like the problem solver you get when you realise you need to throw all the templates out the window and start fresh.

Building efficiencies are paramount and he says governments are the rare birds who have the size, the long term view and balance sheet (!) to allow new thinking to translate to action that resonates beyond the singular prototype. It turns out it’s not just the Australian property industry that turns to government to get lift off for innovation.

Johnston is like the problem solver you get when you realise you need to throw all the templates out the window and start fresh.

No preconceptions, no prejudices and no rusted on historic loyalty to “how things are done here”.

When it comes to a commission to do a hospital for instance, throw out the brief, he says.

The head of procurement might specify that the hospital needs this and that, by way of new facilities.

Don’t listen. What they are actually asking for are spaces in which to heal and mend.

Interestingly, he told the audience, the bits of a hospital that are unique probably adds up to 50 per cent. No more. The corridors, bathrooms, plant rooms, foyers and so on are just the same as any other facility that might have vastly different purposes. So these are the bits that can be cookie cut from a standardised system that will slash costs and waste.

With prisons Johnston’s team delves into psychology to get better outcomes.

It sees building new prisons as not just a solution for buildings but for the human problems that generate the need for them.

So the team gets inmates to help design new prison facilities and learn building skills. It not only solves the skills and design issues but is an opportunity to slash the recidivism that is notorious among a population riven with mental health issues and other trauma.

To learn from the best, the team also went to Sweden to see how the Scandis manage to keep order in these potentially volatile power kegs.

Imagine a regular suburban house placed in the centre of a prison. Its purpose is to provide a space for 24 hour visits – spouse and kids included.

That’s a privilege no one wants to lose Johnston tells The Fifth Estate at the dinner, and by the way, if there are kids about, there’s a new level of conduct that’s called for, he adds.

Maybe not all countries can rise to this level of advanced social thinking but you can see the principle of thinking “outside the box” that’s operating here.

A software platform for construction

Similar collisions of brilliant solutions and need came from Philipp Erler who is co-founder of Gropyus – a German company that makes no apologies for borrowing its name from the architectural master Walter Gropius, who along with other notables such as Frank Lloyd Wright founded the Bauhaus movement.

Ehler showed the audience a building prototype that has been conceived and factory-built with a digital first perspective and sustainability also front and centre.

It’s a nine storey apartment block that decimated construction time, produced 95 per cent lower emissions than a reference building and could account for the carbon in everything from a screw to the insulation.

Everything about the technique behind this building is about smashing the barriers to better building that exist in most places globally.

Here the focus is on tech and in fact the company was founded by “two people from tech” Erler told the audience. Out of 400 people in the company just 50 “team members” work on the factory floor.

The rest are glued to their screens solving digital problems and only 30 per cent of these have a background in construction.

The impetus for this model of building is need, he said. And in Australia we related to everything he said.

But the housing shortages there are even more acute.

Australia, he noted, needs to build 250,000 apartments a year but has capacity for just 180,000.

“Now the number for Germany is we need to deliver roughly 400,000 per year, and we are also delivering only 180,000.”

Germany also faces a massive skills shortage.

Until recently a lot of building and transport work was done by Ukrainians, who of course are now engaged in more existential issues in their homeland.

Rising education levels have also decimated the number of people going into the building trades.

Digitalisation and factory production for housing makes sense.

The audience was also captivated by KOPE’s co-founder David Flynn whose company has created a software platform that integrates off site processes for construction and products.

As we’ve heard from some of the academics around our own offices at UTS in Sydney, Australia has quite a vibrant culture of innovation in building. People who produce very high grade quality products. The problem is they are tiny business “and no-one knows they exist!” our source told us.

KOPE is the kind of offsite construction software system that brings the world of possibilities into a single view and then makes all the pieces fit.

Another standout presenter was Sigrid Brell-Cokcan founder and director of the intriguing Robots in Architecture organisation in Austria, who showed videos of highly advanced robotic work, including one that can deconstruct a building by carefully slicing through concrete so it can be re-used (instead of the traditional detonation job).

But it was the panel sessions and conversations at the multiple roundtable sessions that shone laser lights on specific problems, and revealed the local centres of innovation.

Among the throng on and off stage were The Property Council, with chief executive Mike Zorbas fresh from trying his own subtle disruption at a building minister’s forum, the Green Building Council, the Australian Institute of Architects, Standards Australia, and state and federal governments.

The innovators

Then there were the innovators. People like Ross Harding of Finding Infinity, who keeps pushing the edges with new concepts in highly sustainable buildings and who’s just teamed up with our favourite events moderator Jess Miller to launch a New Normal in Sydney to match his work down south. Harding is doing what is badly needed – providing models for disruption.

Because we know that the construction and property industry in general is highly resistant to change. They’ll do what the other guy is doing. Harding is currently sourcing funding for this latest “wow” project.

Attending too was Bryon Price of A.G. Coombs, an industry partner with the CRC who told us his company is well advanced on a “kit of parts” for its airconditioning work.

Mulpha turned up from Sydney for the day with Tim Spencer and Jan van der Bergh. In the crowd and the roundtables where detailed discussions took place were Standards Australia, modular builders Fleetwood Australia, Bluescope Steel and federal and state government executives.

A pleasing surprise was getting to know Victoria’s Master Builders Australia’s work, believe it or not, is working hard on how the leadership brings its more than 6000 members along for bigger ambition on sustainability.

Our readers will know we’ve long sheeted home the blame for blocking a better National Construction Code on the MBA and their cousins the Housing Industry Association.

So it’s interesting to ponder this human conundrum of how exactly how to shift a huge membership that’s got rusted on habits and the

Inertia that stems from business imperatives, industry stress and political messages from the previous federal government that belittled anything vaguely progressive with environment.

But then that’s the challenge for the rest of this industry too.

Up to us to us to talk more with the MBA leadership, the innovators, the political persuaders and anyone else that offers a chink in the armour of stasis.

The Fifth Estate travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Building 4.0 CRC

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  1. You presents a thought-provoking perspective on the challenges and opportunities within the construction and building industry. It highlights the importance of diverse ideas and innovative thinking to address the evolving needs of our built environment.

  2. Great article of what appears to be a fabulous event.
    Amongst the many gems – this – “Digitalisation and factory production for housing makes sense” – still faces headwinds, as ‘off-site’, prefabricated, modular delivered-to-site 2D and 3D products may not yet conform to the current ABCB/NSW planning regulation definitions of construction/building. The HIA/AMGC and Swinburne reported on these regulatory barriers in their October 2022 Final Report – well worth a read.