Out with the old – How modular design can play a part in remedying Australia’s housing crisis

by Ian Briggs
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Plus Architecture director Ian Briggs shares how the built world would be wise to capitalise on modular design technology when responding to Australia’s housing crisis as demand for housing is worryingly surpassing supply. 

Australia is caught in a perfect storm of rising property prices, a shrinking pipeline of new builds and a chronic affordability crisis. Across Asia Pacific, there is simply no time, materials or trades available to meet the rapidly accelerating demand for housing with current construction models. It’s clear we need to think outside the box on housing delivery – and modular design can, and should, be part of the solution.

Modular designs offer us new opportunities to express architecture in exciting ways for boundless structural variety and innovation. Across Australia and New Zealand, Plus Architecture is helping to develop a series of modular construction systems that offer flexible, custom-made solutions to individual sites, briefs and budgets.

What is modular design and construction?

Prefabricated modular construction has long been recognised as a sustainable alternative to traditional building methods. In traditional modular systems, prefabricated housing modules are built offsite in a controlled factory environment before being transported to site for swift assembly as a single module or combined and stacked with other modules.

The potential benefits of modular are manyfold, helping to reduce some of the carbon emissions generated by the construction and building operations sector – which contributes to more than 40 percent of the emissions driving global warming. 

A controlled offsite construction environment minimises safety risks, results in a high level of quality assurance and has the potential to be 30 to 40 percent more cost-effective than traditional building methods. Standardised designs help reduce construction waste and better enable ‘Passive House’ insulation levels, resulting in healthier, more comfortable and efficient buildings.

Seen as a strong alternative to traditional construction for social housing, student housing, hotels and hospitality, new developments in modular systems offer a far greater level of flexibility and design expression than ever before.

In geographic regions like New Zealand where most buildings are timber and cannot be recycled – like steel or concrete can – modular provides much better outcomes in relation to Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment, as modular building elements can be recycled after use.

Overcoming limitations of modular construction 

But even as modular design enters an exciting new era, the traditional evocation of the ‘shipping container residence’ remains – a single modular house transported on the back of a truck with limited ceiling heights and flexibility.  Public understanding of modular housing is still inchoate and a lack of investment and regulatory challenges are holding back the sector from its full potential.

We need to think bigger and look beyond the shipping container residence to fully embrace the possibilities of new modular technology for more efficient and cost-effective housing delivery.

Plus Architecture’s embrace of sustainable building practices

A collaboration between Plus Architecture and PowerHouse Homes founder and CEO Waco Tao is forging new territory in modular design, powered by automotive-style supply chain integration. Plus Architecture is developing a series of large-scale modular housing concepts in Queensland that can be built in one-tenth of the time and 40 percent less than a traditional build.

In Sydney, Plus Architecture has recently adopted a ‘kit of parts approach’ – a set of universal design principles that define how prefabricated pods can be used to deliver durable and high-quality apartments. Thanks to sustainable, large-scale affordable and social housing models, the potential impact of this framework on Sydney’s housing crisis is significant. 

Plus Architecture also has five modular projects in the pipeline in New Zealand – a mix of five-storey apartments and hotels that are breaking new ground in aiming for 100 percent modular construction. This approach is more cost and time-effective than buildings where lifts, lobbies and stair access have to be constructed separately.

Modular construction offers plentiful opportunities for built world 

After more than 2000 years of building homes in much the same way, it’s time we fully embraced highly automated and controlled 21st century construction methods. Widespread acceptance of modular systems can offer us a revolution in time, quality and cost-efficiency, but the current volume of modular housing delivery is not high enough to meet Australia’s housing needs.

By ramping up the delivery of more flexible and large-scale modular housing viability, we can open up more opportunities for onshore construction, which holds potential benefits for regional communities. 

Additional funding and regulatory support from governments and banks can help us overcome current barriers in the sector and allow modular housing to emerge as a cornerstone of Australia’s construction future.

Responsibility falling on designers

At the same time, as designers we need to give greater consideration to modular requirements and funding, as modular stages are different to standard building stages and require a different financial plan often with more upfront investment, but with significant cost and time benefits over the lifecycle of a building.

While there will always be a place for ‘traditional’ building, modular construction is an important part of a mix of solutions to our current construction challenges. Together, we can demand more sustainable and efficient construction methods and deliver modular buildings that are resilient, flexible and thoughtful.

Ian Briggs appeared as a guest speaker at the Modular for Affordable Housing Summit in Sydney in June and will be participating in the Modular for Affordable Housing Summit in Auckland in July. 

Imagery supplied by Plus Architecture.

The built world from both sides – architectural graduate and carpenter calls for industry change in construction.

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