A promising new school and leveraging the residential sector to train the construction workforce of the future were among the key takeaways from a recent off site and prefabricated construction conference in Melbourne.

Attended by over 240 delegates from Australia and overseas, the many presentations at the Frame Australia’s 2019 Conference reinforced the need for Australia’s vocational and university education systems to pay attention to the rapid developments in off-site construction manufacturing, and how this will reshape the need for new methods of work packaging and skills on-site.

Key takeaways include the timber conversation starting to engage with its concrete and steel counterparts.

Presentations by the teams on the Ballarat GovHub project and extensions to 276 Flinders Street, Melbourne, provided unique insights into how making and extending modern buildings happens in reality.

The as-built designs of older buildings has suddenly become very relevant. The builders and off-site manufacturers of these buildings pointed to the importance of designers of the future having deep design and materials integration skills.

Another key conversation centred on intellectual property. This conversation had relevance to all regulators and certifiers, with the matter of project IP being open source a question for regulators.

There was a case study where fire testing was commissioned by a company and locked up as IP. An example of a project certification involving a mid-construction insolvency made access to some testing IP uncertain. The presenting certifier provided first-hand experience of dealing with relevant authorities and the challenges that arose.

We need to train up the modern construction workforce

Speaking about the state of Australian Off-Site Construction Manufacture sector in 2019, I argued that the Australian construction industry needs to put more focus on industry skilling and enabling modern construction enterprise capability building, rather than on the hype given to modern construction tech over the last 20 years.

I said this hype has distracted from the necessary education investment largely neglected at this critical time. It’s time to turn this around, otherwise more and more of Australia’s construction jobs will go offshore.

I believe it’s not possible to deliver better, smarter, faster and more assured construction without the necessary capabilities. Australia also needs a massive new technical skill investment to meet the demand for qualified modern industry professionals.

The industry is looking for a strong practical workforce who understand new developments in construction materials and composite construction involving timber, steel and concrete, with an increasing focus on less waste, better quality and lower carbon when making modern buildings.

These capabilities will need to be backed up with design management, manufacturing and logistics skills to inform how a new industry typology will enable traditional on-site construction to become more assembly orientated.

Box Hill Institute is one to watch

Box Hill Institute has introduced the first of its new prefabricated building system courses.

The first course focuses on on-site installation of prefabricated timber construction and starts in July. It’s a six month course for Certificate Level III qualifications or equivalent experience.

Also from next month, the college will offer a one-year Diploma of Project Management for Prefabricated Building Systems – Timber.

I presented a table of four possible mixes of construction typologies that may define how construction on and off-site could unfold in Australia by 2030.

Unless there’s progress towards the new capabilities that our industry will need by 2023, the only choice will be to source smarter construction capabilities offshore.

The new courses on offer at the college are an exciting step towards closing the capabilities gap shown in the table below.

Table by David Chandler

It’s also important to understand the differences in what I call “Aussie-OSCM” and “Euro/US-OSCM”. Our market scales, structures and geographies are very different. Australia has small markets and enterprises all some way apart.

In the future, the most sought-after construction professionals including architects, engineers, certifiers and constructors will have achieved technical qualifications and industry experience before going on to do degree courses.

The sandpit collaborations that will occur at institution’s such as Box Hill will prepare future construction professionals for what lies ahead, as has been seen in Europe.

Over the last three years, Western Sydney University has established the Centre for Smart Modern Construction.

The centre has invested in new greenfield research into the important themes that will define a modern industry. This research is focused on how the management of modern construction enterprises and projects will occur and how the digital economy will redefine the way construction is transacted and becomes more assured.

There’s still a lack of pre-competitive collaboration in the sector

Also discussed at the conference was the level of pre-competitive collaboration that should occur among the timber-OSCM sector’s major players, as they try to out compete each other without there being a base line of new common endeavours.

For example, less than 2 per cent of building designs used in the residential sector today are likely to be OSCM ready. This will require a sector-led response, as “winner-take-all-plays” by individual players will fail to achieve an industry wide uptake of OSCM.

Another area where pre-competitive collaboration could benefit everyone would be developing model contracts for use by timber-OSCM customers to plan and organise project procurement activities so that they better align with new delivery options.

There’s a huge opportunity to train the modern workforce in residential

Delegates discussed the challenges of scaling the upskilling effort needed to enable an Australian-OSCM timber sector.

The growing low rise multiunit (two to five levels) market is central to this endeavour. Dwelling completions in this sector may reach 120,000 annually by 2025.

The residential sector has always helped to develop the grounding for construction careers. A target 40 per cent penetration rate for timber-OSCM in the Australian housing market by 2030 would be a suitable benchmark to meet the skill profiles and the numbers of modern construction ready builders that the country will need.

This requires breaking the numbers down by considering the types of skills, the enterprises and work teams that could be needed. For every 10,000 multiunit dwelling completions each year, it’s likely up to 225 modern construction able enterprises would be needed.

Those enterprises would need to have the skills described in the table shown and have made the transition to organise work packaging on and offsite to feed into a sequence of orderly, mostly assembly orientated, self-managing and certifying onsite work teams or tasks.

Table by David Chandler

The main distinction in achieving this would be that construction design, planning and performance would need to shift from a focus on traditional trades-based fabrication on-site, usually relying on up to 30 different trades.

That shift would typically be to fewer than 10 multi-skilled on-site assembly teams. Those work packages or teams may involve:

  • A sub-structure where a single team undertook all of the on-site works prior to the main build including; excavation, in-ground services, basement concrete and sealing
  • A super-structure team involving erecting the structure, enclosure, roofing, pre-fixed windows and doors all the way to lock up and waterproof
  • The first phase of building fit-out such as inter-dwelling walls and services reticulation
  • The second fit-out phase involving dwelling internal arrangements and finishes
  • Specialist custom fit-out to meet client specific needs, that is, for ageing occupants
  • External works, landscaping and access

The adoption of construction work in this way will help re-define how constructor on-site overheads can be better deployed; attending to the off-site procurement, sequencing and quality assurance.

An important feature of this approach is the blending of mass-fabrication and mass-customisation for future buildings to better meet individual client preferences.

Embracing these changes and preparing a modern construction workforce to be future ready would see the need for over 25,000 modern industry practitioners to be trained by 2030 for the timber-OSCM sector alone.

We need to get cracking with upskilling the whole industry

This is not a capability building challenge that can be put off. Unless measurable progress can be observed by 2023, Australia will see more and more these jobs go offshore to address any skills shortfall.

However, timber OSCM market segment is just the tip of a whole industry that will need to be brought along on a similar transformation journey. The capability building task here is much larger.

Australia’s construction workforce is over 1,000,000 – the second largest in the economy. At least a third of this workforce will likely need to be OSCM skilled or reskilled over the same timeframe.

The challenge for industry, government, regulators and educators is that preparing a modern construction workforce involving over 300,000 a newly trained or up-skilled workforce is a plus 10-year project.

The foundation will need to be a massive re-investment in the nation’s vocational education platform.

David Chandler is a construction industry practitioner.

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  1. HI Daniel well done to GBI as well, great work

    The qualifications we have developed include new units of competence that incorporates a need for ECI and changes in the NCC. They raise questions around future project management requirements as well as installation. We are also linking these qualifications with new qualifications in BIM that will support OSM. Best wishes

  2. This raises so many important issues and not just for the construction industry – for our future economy, workforce, education sector and the increasingly automated workplace.