13 Sep I’m Sold On Prefab For My Sustainable Home, And Here’s Why
I’m a big advocate of pre-fabricated construction for reasons I’ve spelled out on the building and design solutions page. My off-grid home will have lightweight timber-framed floors, walls and roof, all panelised and built off site.
But not everyone is a prefab believer. To give you the full story on prefab, I went to an expert – my architect/builder Paul Adams of Fairweather Homes. He also threw in some tips for finding the right building consultant, so make sure you read to the end.
Paul, what are the preconceptions that people have about prefab in your experience?
The most common one we get is that it’s going to be cheaper, and therefore the quality’s probably not that good. Customers believe it’s all about making compromises: they’ll get a quick and cheap – but nasty – result.
And that relates back to the image people have of prefab – that it’s cabins in caravan parks, or demountable buildings or dongers; disposable buildings almost.
And there’s a misconception that prefab doesn’t offer flexibility. That you’re getting a cookie cutter option, like buying a car – it’s about the cheap, base model. That mindset definitely still exists.
Is that mindset changing?
The way the perception of prefab buildings has shifted in the last five to 10 years is quite remarkable. A lot more people understand that prefabrication is capable of being a far more sophisticated response, and they also understand those things you talk about Laura, around it being an efficient way of building. There’s definitely a shift to that.
All those upmarket renovation shows have done a good job of showing what the Germans and Swedes have been doing for decades with prefab residences. We’re seeing real examples of very sophisticated, high-performance homes built using prefabrication.
What do you tell people who are concerned that prefab limits creativity and flexibility of design?
Our response is that not all prefabricators are created equal, and in fact, a lot of people’s preconceptions are justified. There are products that are cheap and nasty and inflexible, like those caravan park cabins.
And there are some that are super high performance – used in some of the most expensive buildings in the world. And there’s everything in between.
It’s a broad range of offerings, including the commercial sector as well. We encourage people to find the best fit for your budget, quality expectations and timeframes.
And to answer your question, prefab is definitely flexible. If the brief asks for a bunch of small boxes, we’ll prefabricate a bunch of boxes. That’s what modular homes are about.
But if the brief needs to have soaring ceilings, or capture light from the north and east, like yours, and the access is down a tiny alley way with a whole lot of tricky interfaces, we’ll just use that access as best we can, and prefabricate it as much as we can, to get the best bang for buck.
Panelisation costs less to build and transport; you’re not overspending on logistics to achieve a certain outcome.
Why did you decide, as a firm, to specialise in manufactured off-site solutions?
For us, the decision to use prefab comes from seeking a balance. We believe that the architectural response is as critical as the building’s performance and the quality, cost and aesthetics. It’s a balancing act of all those things.
We’ve resolved that prefabrication through panelised components is how we can achieve that balance. Producing buildings that stand the test of time, that are contextually appropriate and suit the client’s brief.
Other prefab companies like to complete the whole building off site and deliver a box, and while it might have a lot of costs and logistics challenges, that method of modular homes still has merit. That’s their response. And there are others in between.
We think that having a prefabricated offering as part of the delivery is actually a better way to build. We always have that architectural eye on it to begin with. Then we work out how to get a prefabricated response.
Are there actually benefits for the design – the aesthetics, in using prefab over traditional practices?
As an architect, there are always constraints and palettes of materials that exist out in the real world, and it’s how we bring those together for an architectural result that matters.
A good architect should be able to create a beautiful result designing with traditional building processes or with prefabrication. It’s about understanding what’s at their disposal in terms of manufacture and panelisation and the materiality that goes with that, and then how to create a beautiful building using that set of constraints.
What prefabrication does is encourage discipline in the design process. It encourages holistic problem solving very early on in the process, because you have to make the building in a controlled environment. And that then circumvents the traditional construction problem we have in Australia – that lazy mentality, where every problem is left for the next person to solve, and the client ends up paying for all of the inherent inefficiencies around letting problems get deferred.
How do you deal with the constraints of prefab?
First you have to understand, and then work within the constraints. In your case, we found a way to work in such a compact, tight site. If you didn’t have the side alley access, we might have recommended you pop in a finished box.
In some situations like renovations and extensions in particular, prefabrication doesn’t make sense from a logistics and material handling point of view. We might give the advice that it would be better to take a traditional approach.
If someone’s not yet engaged a builder/architect, what are your tips for finding a consultant who will help them meet their brief, whether prefab or not?
- The primary advice I give everyone is find the right fit for your personality and desire and your communication style. It’s about you both being on the same page from an aesthetic and design point of view – as quickly as possible.
Spend your time finding the right partner, someone you’re willing to listen to, who can hear you. That respect and communication has got to be there, and you have to like what they do, and if those two things come together, you’re in a good position.
- With a project as complex, ground-breaking and future focused as yours, the collaboration has to happen; if everyone is in their silos it won’t come together. Everyone has to be willing to connect and share with the other disciplines for success to happen.
- Also finding people who have done the work before, not relying on someone wanting to be able to do it. The future-focused sustainability element is where it differs fundamentally from 99% of the work being done by contractors or consultants in the field.
In Australia, most people are used to meeting the usual standards. As soon as you try to put a future focus on that, to build a sustainable home or an off-grid home, and raise the level of difficulty, there’s only a small group of people willing to participate. Not everyone wants to do better for the future.
So that’s where the interview process is really critical. Personality, capability, willingness and desire have to all be fleshed out early – that sets the base for a good road forward.
- Look outside the box as to who you reference. But also be careful not to look too far outside the box; lots of things that have been done overseas might not be easily translated to Australia. It’s a global context we’re working in for sure, but it’s about the adaptation of it.