Featured in The Age: Prefab Systems Hit New Heights

19 March 2016

New ways to build apartment towers are saving time and money, writes Iain Gillespie.

Iain Gillespie, Saturday March 19, 2016

A revolution in construction technology is sweeping the world, enabling apartment skyscrapers to be built cheaper and faster than ever before. New prefabricated systems have just enabled a 57-storey project in China to be erected in just 19 days.

The company responsible for the project in Hunan province 'Broad Sustainable Building, now has ambitions to assemble the world's tallest skyscraper, at 220 floors, in only three months, and Australian construction groups are using similar systems.

Prefabricated apartment buildings that can be erected in a fraction of the time taken by traditional construction methods have come along way since the first box­shaped modules were stacked on top of each other like giant Lego blocks.

Melbourne has seen quite a few modular apartment developments over the years. In one example in 2014, a nine-storey development of 34 apartments in Moonee Ponds was erected in a mere 120 hours.

However, the original system of piling up steel boxes like shipping containers lifted by cranes was restricted in height and design. The modules' fabric was not strong enough to stack to any great height, and their rectangular shape hampered architects' creativity.

A Melbourne company, Hickory Group, has overcome those restrictions and is using a home-grown prefabrication system to build La Trobe Tower, a 42-level tower at 323 La Trobe Street in the CBD that will house 205 apartments.

"There's really no height limit with our integrated structural system," says Hickory Group's marketing manager Nadia Salajic. "A large building that usually takes three years might only take us a year or a year and a half.

"Because the elements are arriving on site with the windows, external walls and facade already attached, it means that construction on site is safer because no one is working on what we call the 'live edge' of the building.

"Our system does not limit designs, floor plans or the kind of finishes you can have. With constructions like the one we're doing in La Trobe Street, they are really beautiful unique buildings and we haven't moulded the architect's vision to suit our system."

Building a prefabricated apartment tower is not necessarily cheaper in terms of construction costs, but doing it in less time can save millions of dollars in loan interest.

Whether those savings will mean lower apartment prices remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, growing competition in the global prefabricated construction industry is bringing overseas players from Europe and China to Australia's shores, with a conference on the subject to be held in Sydney from March 30 to April 1.

"We will be sharing the ideas of internationally recognised experts, including a leader in the field from the US," says Zoey Fang of Clariden Global conference management, adding that Australia is lagging behind in taking up the technology.

Hickory Group disagrees. "We are leading the way with our integrated structural system," Ms Salajic says. "We can look at a site and the architectural plans and say; well we can prefabricate the whole structure, or just use modular elements."

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