Opinion piece by Scott Fisher, PrefabNZ CEO

Construction must innovate, government must be the enabler

Offsite construction has been changing the way we build since the Pencarrow Lighthouse on Wellington’s wild coast was first shipped in pieces from England in the mid 1800s. Why then is the construction industry and government still so tied to the traditional way of building? Two reasons - conservative thinking and lack of cohesion.

If offsite manufacturing is to be part of New Zealand’s solution to the building crisis, we need braveness and collaboration. Big bold steps to build confidence and push us to upscale, innovate and deliver at a pace. Offsite manufacturing could, and should, be ramping up as part of the big picture solution. Together industry and government must incentivise and expediate the investment, and use, of offsite construction. To do that we need confidence the significant capital investment needed will result in long term benefit to the industry.

Other industries - tourism, film, and farming have the benefit of one government Minister to drive progress, innovation and government focus. Construction doesn’t need Government to babysit us, but we do need a leader to deliver strong Government direction supporting a significant shifting of gears. Urgently needed is a single overarching well-funded strategy, collating siloed needs across the building sector into a cohesive focus, prioritising the growth of the sector, and delivering buildings better and faster. The Construction Sector Accord is a step forward but long term it is not enough. In 2018 the UK Government committed to invest ₤170million GBP ($324million NZD) in collaboration with industry to drive innovation and adoption of offsite manufacturing. I challenge the NZ Government to step up and make an investment in our future.

The NZ Government needs to back winners to turn our housing crisis around. While Kānga Ora is making good progress, it accounts for only 7% of housing construction, leaving a huge gap.

But Government input is not the only answer. As a sector we cannot wait to adopt more productive ways of working. Better manufacturing processes, adoption of existing technology, reduction in waste material and more efficient building methods are all essential. The public need to be aware of the benefits of offsite manufacturing and incentivised to consider it as a build option. A carrot is needed to get this cart moving.

The construction sector can’t, or isn’t, doing this on its own. There needs to be bold leadership and direction from government with financial incentives to adopt offsite manufacturing. Small initiatives focused on fixing a single issue will not move the proverbial mountain and create the shift change needed to actually make a difference. Long term, big vision, Government investment is required to provide financial incentives to shift the construction sector. After all, you get what you pay for and currently the government pays very little. Even the new Climate Change Commission does not look at the construction sector and the waste it creates through poor old, methods that contribute to our landfills. Finger pointing, telling us to build more, build faster, build better but not investing in supporting that to happen just means the pace of change is slow, and costly.

A guaranteed pipeline of work incentivises our already innovative part of the construction industry to invest. A well informed and incentivised home building public will look beyond the traditional and drive the demand for new, efficient, and sustainable ways of building.

Well performing buildings are part of our everyday conversation but if they are built using wasteful processes then it is like driving an electric car charged on coal generated electricity. Some may call that greenwashing.

This is a culture shift to be embedded now in our new apprentices and student architects. Waste and inefficiency must be designed out of our buildings and the workforce must be skilled and deliver high quality buildings first time. The diversity of offsite means new jobs, different people stepping into all types of construction - new blood with new thinking. The wins are there across the full lifecycle of a building and everyone is part of it.

The old ways will not save us, and we no longer have the time to wait. The Canterbury earthquakes were a missed opportunity to turbo charge the offsite sector. Kiwi Build failed to deliver when the offsite sector was ready and waiting to rise to the occasion. Government now runs the risk of missing yet another opportunity - the one Covid 19 presents. Offsite manufacturing is not the only answer, but it will be part of one.

Now is the time for a Government led revolution where the entire construction sector rallies to make bold changes. As the saying goes - if you keep doing the same thing then you keep getting the same result. I say it’s time to change the result.

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