A new component-based building system created in Coffs Harbour on the NSW mid coast promises a new era in efficient, waste free construction. The system is assembled and disassembled by hand and is fast, precise and waste-free. The best bit? The company will even buy back used components to sell again.
After working as a builder for 30 years, Maurice Lake became frustrated with how environmentally damaging and inefficient traditional construction methods are, and how the industry is so taxing on the people who work in it.
He saw an opportunity to improve sustainability and efficiency by borrowing from precision manufacturing techniques used to build cars.
The result taps into the need for more affordable housing: the system can build a small house first up and be expanded over time. It’s based on small componentry that can be mostly be carried by one person. It relies on grooves and slots for assembly so parts can be re-used without the risk of damage from screws or nails. And it’s quick, safe and precise.
Another big benefit with the emerging trades shortages is that the system can be learned in four weeks so doesn’t rely on years of training typical of traditional methods.
Almost a decade of work
Lake developed the system, called Buildonix, after years of research and development, with his team in Coffs Harbour. It’s taken nearly a decade to reach launch.
Along the way, he’s had some help from some big brains, including Edge Environment head of circular economy and lifecycle thinking Dr Matthew Parnell and Michael Sharpe from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre.
There’s also been help from universities, including the University of NSW’s Scientia Professor Deo Prasad, former chief executive officer of the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, and the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology led by Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla.
So far, the company has just finished a council approved and certified structure. Now Lake needs to grow the team to “take the product to the world”. As well as embarking on a recruitment drive, he also needs finance to build a factory to start delivering the product at scale.
At this stage, he’s all about growing the business, and working through any bugs and fixes. He’s already addressed one concern about thermal breaks associated with an initial aluminium product.
The grand plan is to sell franchises that will be based in different regions and countries, with the headquarters to remain in Coffs Harbour.
How it works
Like a sophisticated set of building blocks, the system relies on a structural space frame
with grooves and slots that bolt or click together, instead of using screws and nails that
would prevent the structure from being dismantled unharmed.
The first iteration of the Buildonix structural system is made from aluminium, but Lake
says the structural space frame is suitable for a combination of other composite materials such as laminated timber and roll formed steel.
Its non-structural finishes within the structure such as facades and floor
coverings can adopt a variety finishes from granite and porcelain, down to standard finish materials. The idea is there are finishes to suit taste and budget.
It’s based on car manufacturing systems and processes and factory manufacturing which will eventually be completely integrated on a single digital platform along with design
processes. The result is precise engineering, with few errors, and quick build times thanks to mass production and no weather delays.
Lake says that like any new technology, there’s a slight price premium depending on the project; he estimates between 5-10 per cent at this early stage, with costs expected to drop as volumes are scaled up. In the first instance, however, the speed of assembly, quality of product and environmental sustainability to provide an attractive opportunity.
And there is the promise that the circularity of the system opens avenues for new business models, with the product to be sold back to the manufacturer to re-enter the supply chain.
Leasing suddenly looks like a good option
Such a building solution also lends itself to leasing, especially for the commercial sector. Office and retail fitouts, which often have huge churn rates, could be leased rather than purchased, with considerable savings on upfront expenditure and the flexibility to refresh the look.
Speed would also be a positive factor, with fitouts potentially installed overnight, so, no disruptions, noise and mess.
Flexibility is also financially attractive, he says. A first time owner might initially only be able to afford a one to two bedroom home with basic finishes but hope to add new rooms and better finishes over time.
Easy transportation is another positive. “When you take all the air out of a house and break it down into simple components, it’s amazing how small it is.”
It’s easy to work with and good in a shrinking trades pool
According to Lake, other attributes include the simplicity of the product and its safety.
Assemblers can complete the training in under a year compared to four years to become a trained builder.
He sees the technology solving many of the ills in the construction industry.
“It’s a hard trade, you work very long hours and don’t make much money until you’re a developer, and then it’s more about the timing than doing the work.”
Because of these issues and also because demand for construction is increasing, the industry is suffering from a skills shortage.
“There are not a lot of people getting into the trade and those already in it are growing old and getting out of the game.”
While digitalisation and modernisation does reduce demand for traditional roles, Lake sees modern construction methods like his solution opening new avenues for high tech jobs.
And because the system is cleaner, safer and quieter to deal with, he expects it to attract a more diverse crowd to an industry dominated by men.