Transforming pre-fabricated housing for the better

3 minute read

Pre-fab housing

In collaboration with industry and universities across Asia-Pacific, researchers at the University of Melbourne are transforming pre-fabricated housing and providing a holistic solution to the housing crisis. The research conducted through the initiative is being applied in various contexts, including fire and flood prone areas, and infectious diseases, and is in the early stages of a new CRC that continues to advance the sector.

Key points

  • Researchers at the University of Melbourne are leading collaborative projects to make pre-fabricated housing safer, affordable and more sustainable
  • The research is highly multidisciplinary and involves dozens of academic and industry partners, with outputs including innovative materials to business models
  • The research is designed to be applied in various contexts and open-source so that it can be used as widely as possible
  • The initiative has been running officially since 2015 and research activities are currently being conducted through the Building 4.0 CRC, co-founded by the University of Melbourne and led by Monash University
  • Pre-fabricated housing has the potential to solve the housing crisis but the sector in Australia was lagging behind other countries.

The outcome

Pre-fabricated housing is becoming safer, more sustainable and accessible to the communities that need it thanks to close and ongoing collaboration between University of Melbourne researchers and dozens of industry and academic partners.

With the ARC-funded Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing (CAMPH) and the Building 4.0 CRC as its key platforms, the University of Melbourne initiative aims to provide a holistic solution to the great need for housing in Australia, in both disaster and non-disaster contexts, while growing the country’s prefabricated housing sector.

The research spans all aspects of pre-fabricated housing – from materials to business models. This includes developing a new generation of advanced, high performance building facades (with CSR); recycling plastic waste for manufacturing building products (with Bondor and other partners); utilisation of construction demolition waste for making green bricks (with Sycamore and other partners).

Leading much of this work is University of Melbourne Professor Tuan Ngo, who is Research Director of the ARC Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing in Prefabricated Housing and the Asia-Pacific Research Network for Resilient and Affordable Housing (APRAH) – a collaboration of CAMPH to address the issue of housing across the region, and Program Leader of the Building 4.0CRC.

He says: “It's not a single project. Our research really is a portfolio of everything related to making housing safer, more affordable, and more sustainable."

“A lot of people can manufacture and model housing, but it might not be sustainable, or affordable. This is very important. With climate change and all the extreme weather events, communities need housing very quickly after a disaster. [But it must also be accessible and help them avoid damage in the future].”

Open-source research and sharing knowledge is central to the project too. FORTIS House, for example, is a demonstration project built with the Bushfire Building Council of Australia in response to the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires and subsequent floods. From it, house designs and building principles for extreme weather and disaster resilience, sustainability, self-sufficiency and quality, helped recovering communities re-build.

“It’s very important to us that our research is for public good. The knowledge we transfer to communities is where our real contributions lie,” Professor Ngo says.

The research is already being used for many projects requiring resilient, safe buildings fast. For example, the Victorian Government’s permanent modular school buildings program, which has committed to opening 100 new schools, draws on the group’s research with many schools already built.

Through Building 4.0, which has an investment of$ 130M including $28M Federal Government funding awarded in 2020, work continues. This phase focuses on digital solutions, leveraging the latest technologies, data science and artificial intelligence to make pre-fabricated buildings safer, smarter and faster.

“Through PrefabAUS, for example, we're contributing to a project in New South Wales focused on building resilient housing for flooding zones. for the future. The idea is a floating house, capable of moving up when flooding occurs.

“Because rebuilding is important, but it’s about asking where we build and how. What technology can prepare our houses for the future?”

The need

Between rising costs, labour shortage, supply chain disruptions, extreme weather events, and a construction sector that is unable to meet increasing demand, there is a real need for housing in Australia. As well as more housing, we need it quickly. Pre-fabrication can provide this, as an inherently efficient way to build, but it must be affordable, last into the future and conscious of national efforts to reduce carbon to meaningfully meet housing needs.

At the same time, the pre-fabricated housing sector in Australia has significant room for growth. In 2015, when the project began, it contributed only 3 per cent to the Australian construction industry's annual $150 billion production. In many European countries, the market share is 60 per cent to 70 per cent market. There was also a lack of standards, testing and certification methods, codes of practice and financial models that needed to be developed.

The research

The pre-fabricated housing project is highly multidisciplinary, drawing on academic and industry expertise across the entire building process. This includes engineering, IT, architecture, design, planning, construction, business, and law.

“As engineers, we provide knowledge about the type of materials to use. Then we work with our industry partners to ensure it can be incorporated into a building system in a way that performs much better, safer, and more sustainably. We’ work with construction to develop techniques that allow people to adopt products quickly. And we’ve worked with architects and designers from the beginning,” Professor Ngo says.

“Research is very important to future proofing housing, reducing cost, and ensuring sustainability and resilience. But we have to combine all the requirements holistically. That's where I think we have a really unique research capability.”

Developing the solution

Extreme events, namely Black Saturday in 2009 and the 2004 tsunami, have been key factors that led the prefabricated housing project, Professor Ngo says.

"These experiences made me think deeply about what our engineers and our research can do to contribute to future proof our communities. Because they’re not single events anymore. Just take the floods, for example. We expected these to be 20 or 50-year events but it’s happened every two, three years now.”

After working on major projects with government agencies for disaster management, Professor Ngo began bringing more researchers from different disciplines together and found there was real appetite to work seriously on a pre-fabricated housing project.

Collaborations with industry partners and support from the ARC began in 2012. Then in 2015, Professor Ngo set up the ARC-CAMPH, followed by the APRAH in 2018. And in 2020, Building 4.0.

All initiatives are collaborations between industry, academia, government and community.

Partners

The research platform includes 30+ partners, including:

  • The University of Melbourne
  • Monash University
  • The University of Sydney
  • Curtin University of Technology
  • Australian Research Council
  • PrefabAUS
  • PreBuilt
  • Lendlease
  • Donovan Group

Funding support

Platforms

  • $130M from the Australian Government CRC Program and partner contributions to establish the Building 4.0 CRC in 2020
  • Funding from the Regional Collaborations Program, administered by the Australian Academy of Science, to establish Asia Pacific Research Network for Resilient and Affordable Housing (APRAH) in 2017
  • $6M from ARC and industry partners for ARC-CAMPH in 2015

Specific projects

  • CRC-P grant for Recycling Construction Demolition Waste to manufacture sustainable bricks (with Sycamore and other partners), 2020
  • Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) grant to convert plastic waste into lightweight prefabricated building products (with Bondor Metecno Group and other partners), 2019
  • CRC-P grant for Advanced Manufacturing and Construction of Smart Building Modules (with Schiavello and other partners), 2018
  • CRC-P grant to develop a high-performance building facade system (with CSR Building Products), 2017
  • ARC Discovery Projects grant to develop innovative timber composite systems with enhanced resilience to extreme loads, 2020
  • Tyre Stewardship Australia (TSA) grant to develop safe road barriers using rubberised concrete, 2018

Patents

  • WO2017201566A1 - Aerated alkali activated material

Publications

AI Filkov, T Ngo, S Matthews, S Telfer, TD Penman. (2020). Impact of Australia's catastrophic 2019/20 bushfire season on communities and environment. Retrospective analysis and current trends. Journal of Safety Science and Resilience 1 (1), 44-56.

S Navaratnam, T Ngo, T Gunawardena, D Henderson. (2019). Performance review of prefabricated building systems and future research in Australia. Buildings 9 (2), 38.

HT Thai, T Ngo, B Uy. (2020). A review on modular construction for high-rise buildings. Structures 28, 1265-1290.

T Gunawardena, T Ngo, P Mendis, J Alfano. (2016). Innovative flexible structural system using prefabricated modules. Journal of Architectural Engineering 22 (4), 05016003.

S Amirebrahimi, A Rajabifard, P Mendis, T Ngo. (2016). A BIM-GIS integration method in support of the assessment and 3D visualisation of flood damage to a building.Journal of spatial science 61 (2), 317-350

H Tran, TN Nguyen, P Christopher, DK Bui, K Khoshelham, TD Ngo. (2021). A digital twin approach for geometric quality assessment of as-built prefabricated façades. Journal of Building Engineering 41, 102377.

A Jayalath, S Navaratnam, T Ngo, P Mendis, N Hewson, L Aye. (2020). Life cycle performance of Cross Laminated Timber mid-rise residential buildings in Australia. Energy and Buildings 223, 110091

S Karunarathna, S Linforth, A Kashani, X Liu, T Ngo. (2021). Effect of recycled rubber aggregate size on fracture and other mechanical properties of structural concrete. Journal of Cleaner Production 314, 128230.

People

Professor Tuan Ngo

Please see the platform websites for a full list of people involved. Building 4.0; CAMPH; APRAH

Learn more about Infrastructure research.

Image: supplied.

Published 10 October 2022.

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