Backing offsite building

By - , Build 175

Scott Fisher, the new CEO of PrefabNZ, fresh from seeing how they do it in the UK, is upbeat about the prospects of offsite or prefabricated building in New Zealand.

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Q. You have significant experience with other membership organisations. What skills do you bring from them to PrefabNZ?

My member experience started with Master Plumbers and Chartered Accountants. Then after working in the non-governmental and private sector, I returned to the world of membership, heading up Retail NZ.

As with any business, the challenge is to make the most of the limited resources available, deliver value and make a difference. Each membership organisation has specific industry challenges, and my skill is to find the balance between education, inspiring the sector and advocating on the big issues that slow any industry down.

My private sector experience has helped me understand our members’ day-to-day challenges and business pressures and an appreciation of the frustration caused by unfair market dynamics or inefficiencies.

Q. What must be done to see prefabricated housing grow its reach in New Zealand? I am heartened by the level of current activity and the many quiet achievers getting on with it. We need to support these businesses and encourage others to embrace the benefits of offsite construction.

The existing friction points slowing the industry down and causing frustration (consenting, scale, skills and finance) are being addressed. The Building System Legislative Reform Programme, reform of vocational education, the establishment of Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities and even the Construction Sector Accord will all help.

The banking sector also needs to offer financial products rewarding those clients choosing an offsite option. There is an urgency for these changes to start showing results – the sooner, the better.

The industry must demonstrate to the public the options available and not be defined by just one part of the sector. This covers anything from small homes to bespoke designer houses, homes that have elements of repetition, homes that meet anyone’s budget, parts of houses to whole houses. Non-residential projects like schools, hospitals, apartments and hotels are already embracing offsite and will continue to help develop and support the sector.

Q. What about turnkey solutions? In Europe, prefabricated housing suppliers offering these have had the most success.

Businesses delivering a turnkey solution have a degree of scale so these suppliers will get the greatest benefit from prefabrication. They can maximise efficiency and recycle capital more quickly and have the ability to reinvest in technology and manufacturing improvements.

Also, Europe is more advanced in their rent-to-buy and build-to-let schemes, which benefit larger suppliers. However, smaller niche businesses also do well – they have a great product, sound business models and know their customers well.

In New Zealand, vertically integrated businesses are starting to realise the benefits, as are businesses that have strong strategic relationships with developers.

Q. What about public perceptions of prefabricated or modular housing? Previously the image was not good. Has this changed, and if so, why?

Anything that is used past its use-by-date or for a purpose it was not intended for gets a bad rap. If a temporary classroom is still being used after 30 years, the problem is not that it was prefabricated.

Times have certainly changed, and we are seeing more and more fit-for-purpose houses that are of high quality and great design. We need to continue to profile the wide range of options that are available to developers and directly to the public.

Q. If demand for prefab grows, do you see it being met by local companies, or will offshore manufacturing play a part?

I feel New Zealand’s ability to deliver is underestimated. As mentioned, there are many quiet achievers delivering a range of houses to market. Some of these suppliers have spare capacity, and others are already expanding factory space to deliver more. There are also others building business cases to enter the market.

Offshore supply will continue to be part of the prefab landscape in New Zealand, and this will help drive competition, innovation and skills development, which are all good for a vibrant industry. The key is that no supplier can cut corners, there are no double standards and risk sits where it should. We should also remember that the challenges from wharf to site are the same as factory to site, so an offshore solution will not be easier.

Q. Is it important that the government backs prefabricated housing for the KiwiBuild programme and also in its plans for new government housing?

Government support is imperative. The government (and its agencies) are the biggest customer in town and need to lead by example and develop clear strategies and help drive innovation. This will deliver scale and certainty to the local industry and will underpin investment decisions.

Q. You were recently at an offsite building conference in the UK. What was of most interest at this event?

My main takeaway was that other markets are accessing more and better technology to drive construction innovation. The Scottish and UK Governments have invested significantly in innovation hubs for the construction sector, and the Australian Government is following suit. We will be having that conversation with the New Zealand Government.

Other takeaways include the importance of front-end design and prototyping before full production and the creation of a digital twin for a building. There is also a move away from demolishing buildings to deconstructing them so the parts can be reused in a more sustainable way, sometimes referred to as urban mining.

My last takeaway was that New Zealand is moving in the right direction and that this part of the construction sector has a bright future.

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Scott Fisher 3
Scott Fisher 3

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