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World first modular construction code launched in Australia

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What does it tell you about the future of the construction industry when three of the world’s biggest contractors decide to collaborate on a new code? Brookfield Multiplex, Laing O’Rourke and Lend Lease have done exactly that. Led by James Murray-Parkes of Brookfield Multiplex’s Engineering Innovations Group, these Tier 1 contractors, and a host of other industry players teamed up to write a code focused on modular construction. Put simply, this industry is about to change in a big way, and the future involves a lot more off-site construction. The code is an informative guideline for building using off-site construction techniques - whether they be component, panel or volumetric. Tim Porter (Project Director at Holmes Solutions, and Co-chair of PrefabNZ) was invited to the launch in December and shares his notes with us.

Something very interesting happened last week. The world’s first modular construction code was paraded for public viewing. Hosted at the offices of the Victorian State Government, 150 people from the construction industry were lucky enough to get the first sneak peek. 5 years from now, this landmark event could be the tipping point that changed an industry. As we have discussed before, changing a risk averse and conservative industry such as construction is no easy feat. However the modular construction codes board (MCCB) has laid the groundwork to make change easier. We were lucky enough to be invited to the event, so we thought we should share the highlights from the day.

So, what is it? The code is an informative guideline for building using off-site construction techniques - whether they be componentised, panelised or volumetric. The code provides advice on how to design and build within a prefabricated framework by applying existing codes and standards. In simple terms the code aims to “take away a lot of the fears and unknowns” for modular construction.

The authors stressed that this is a model code that is intended to look different, and be different from other codes (and believe it or not, it does look good!). The code is intended to evolve; this is very much the first draft and they are seeking contributions to fill the gaps. They also made it clear that the code has an international focus. The authors have based the guidance on international best practice and are eager to engage with contributors around the globe. Covering diverse topics such as structure, mechanical services, architecture, transport, assembly, safety, facades, reuse, and temporary works (and more…) it is very comprehensive. Key highlights from the presentations covering the content are described below:

Structure

As the largest chapter the content takes a broad look at factors affecting structural design. Favouring an approach linked to reliability and robustness the code looks to apply a probabilistic approach to the design of structures. Encouragingly they advocate the use of physical evidence and the use of testing to determine design values and for validating manufactured units (a philosophy we share). Furthermore they provide guidance on loadings for manufacturing, transport and assembly. Fascinatingly, peak accelerations experienced during transport by rail or ocean can be the worst case loading condition for some building elements. Advice is also provided on potential pitfalls such as axial shortening of columns in high-rise buildings. Needless to say - finding your on-site floor-to-floor measurement has reduced by 15mm can be problematic when your modules were manufactured to the dimensions on the tender package!! Both involve a different design case than that of your traditional in-situ build and are typical of the practical advice that the code offers.

Transportation, erection and temporary works

Thirty percent of construction cost can come from erection and transport costs. Good planning can reduce to this to 15% and be the profit driver to unlock the project’s viability. The code advocates a risk based approach to transportation, erection and temporary works. Choosing the right approach is dependent on factors such as available equipment, skills, the time of year, and weather – there is no “cookie cutter” approach.

Some of the more interesting anecdotes and insights shared included the following:

  • One element can be lifted 8 times before it reaches its final resting place (factory – truck – holding area – truck – ship – truck – holding area – truck – site).
  • At times up to 30% more structure can be required to withstand transport and lifting.
  • Testing of lifting devices is critical to avoid costly mistakes.
  • Modular units with installed sprinklers have experienced popped sprinkler bulbs due to high internal temperatures (>60degC) during storage and transport.

Building services – mechanical, electrical, public health, fire, acoustics and sustainability

There is no attempt to rewrite the core services codes, instead guidance is provided on how to apply the existing requirements and address gaps and issues. The code suggests that it’s critical to have a clear demarcation of onsite and offsite works and proposes that modules can be treated like appliances with a single certification of services. By borrowing from the automotive industry they recommend factory based testing and certification: test it before it leaves the factory and simply connect to the on-site infrastructure.

Compliance

The improved quality that comes from manufacturing building components offsite can improve the compliance pathway. Factory based inspection, verification and certification coupled with greater traceability and improved documentation all contribute to an easier building consent. However there is still work to do with approval authorities and educating them on the benefits of an off-site approach.

What next?

The draft code will be released for public comment early in 2017 and the first edition is scheduled for late 2017. If you are eager to see the draft or speak to the authors then you can find out more at http://www.prefabaus.org.au/mccb/. If you are interested in talking more about the MCCB, or off-site construction please feel free to contact Tim Porter on +64 22 064 0088 or email timp@holmessolutions.com.

Copyright: ideyweb / 123RF Stock Photo

Published December, 2016

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