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Q&A with Yusef Patel - The Research House

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Collaboration is the highlight of the Unitec project, The Research House. A project that has seen a transformative life and seen it provide students at Unitec with hands-on application of prefabricated theory, gain monumental interaction with industry expertise and the fruition of a living home for paying clients.

Yusef Patel with John Chapman and Semisi Portauine, chatted with PrefabNZ on Innovation Bites to give insight into the learnings from The Research House. Below are the questions industry posed to the Unitec team afterwards and the answers provided by Yusef, John and Semisi. Catch-up on this and previous webinars here.


What was your process around quality assurance in terms of inspecting the panel construction during the OSM stage and then during the 'on site' phase? Was this done traditionally through the local TA or was another method used?

John: The engineer observed the panels' construction and their installation on site. The engineer also provides the PS4 for these items to the TA.

Semisi: The normal TA process still governs other parts of the building work.

There have been many prefab rooms, trailer-mounted cabins and caravans, plus converted buses, trucks and rail carriages in use around NZ for decades, including many that are pretty sub-standard in comparison with current good building practice . Do you see your prefab work having an influence on how this adhoc enterprise is undertaken?

Semisi: We took on this challenge with the intention to see if we can swing around the past and current ‘sub-standard’ connotation surrounding pre-fabricating related builds.

Yusef: I think there are opportunities for the techniques used within our prefab construction systems to be employed in a variety of applications. The system can lend itself to the DIYer, and therefore it can be useful in the production of trailer-mounted tiny homes for instance.

Is there opportunity to use other materials such as steel in future projects?

Yusef: Yes. Over the past five years, we have been working and testing a variety of materials. We aim to continue exploring new materials such as steel in the future.

Semisi: We are looking for opportunities to use steel, polymer, concrete, aluminium in combination or individually.

Are you sharing your findings?

Yusef: Yes. We will be sharing our findings in conference papers and journal articles.

What were some of the barriers experienced?

John: When using panels to build a house, windows and doors are within a panel which is a limitation on the architecture, e.g. for 1.2m wide panels, the width of a window or door cannot exceed 1.1m. It is the architect who must make the window and door layout flowing within this limitation.

Semisi: Like any other project, managing expectations from everyone involved is one of the challenges. Even more so when it comes to a new system process. Another challenge we found was with the gap for unskilled labour to create a quality product. Therefore, it was important for us to design in process to narrow that gap.

Yusef: Funding and willingness for individuals to employ our system beyond a novelty product. There were issues around budgets and how to obtain loans from a client’s perspective. As the project was student bases, there were barriers and conflicts between the way students work and how professional contractors work.

What improvements would you make to the process?

John: The tables which support the panel jigs need to be purpose made rather than using tables that are at hand. A solid table will ensure the manufacture of ‘flat’ panels. The panel elevations need their own grid system to ensure that overall panel dimensions are less likely to have discrepancies and that fixing locations are regular throughout.

Semisi: Refining the panel production line process from beginning to end to ensure the highest accuracy and tolerances are produced. These will have an impact once panels are installed onsite, against or with other building components.

Yusef: There are issues around the size of panels and the way we manufacture our assembly. A new system needs to be developed to resolve these issues. We also have discovered that we need to refine our CAD/CAM manufacturing process. We believe this can be effectively resolved by employing better organisational and documentation structures.

Were the material choices (insulation, windows etc) made by best choice or by the industry partner contributions?

Semisi: Simplicity was the design theme. This allows for adaption to any product change that an industry partner is willing to participate and provide. Some training for students and contractor were provided with products.

Yusef: A combination of both. For instance, the use of materials from industry partners such as carter holt Harvey, Proclima NZ, Holdfast and Resene was a negotiation. The selection of windows and insulation was by best choice and client selection.

Did the Research House achieve (or down the track) Home Star rating, or consider Universal design considerations?

Semisi: Keeping simplicity as a theme allows us to work other design factors into the build more simply. Wider and narrower context (siting and orientation) of the house plays a big role in the design considerations without having to add more material (cost of supply and install and related delays) into it. Also as part of that is the Planning Control (heritage) and Infrastructure requirements in addition to the Building Code.

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