Drivers of changing perceptions in the prefab sector: Q&A with Pamela Bell, CEO of PrefabNZ

For the final installment in our prefab series, we asked Pamela Bell, CEO of PrefabNZ, to provide us with some insights into the changing perceptions of prefab in the construction industry.

What is PrefabNZ and how does it fit in to the construction industry space?

Pamela: PrefabNZ is at the heart of innovative construction in New Zealand. The organisation represents 350 Member organisations across the nation and throughout the built environment delivery chain – from specifiers (architects, designers, engineers) to makers (builders, manufacturers, distributors) to research. For more information, visit PrefabNZ’s website.

What do you consider to be the key drivers for innovative change in the construction industry?

Pamela: The reasons for action are clear – construction worldwide has an appalling productivity record. The Financial Times cites, “productivity growth in UK construction has averaged just 0.4% per year, compared with 3.2% in manufacturing”. As Mark Farmer of British Cast Consultancy says, “the construction industry is one of the last to embrace modernisation.” Farmer was the author of the 2016 ‘Modernise or Die’ report which has influenced policy at both a national British government level as well as the Mayor of London’s office. He spoke at PrefabNZ’s CoLab in 2018 and addressed the Industry Transformation Agenda – and will be updating CoLab 2019 with his work chairing the committee for finance, insurance and assurance that reports in to the UK Minister of Housing.

What signs of change are there in the construction industry in New Zealand?

Pamela: Times are changing and under Minister Salesa’s leadership, MBIE has a major skills focus which is seeing sector groups like the Construction Industry Council establish sub-committees to find new ways to attract the right blend of digital skills, management ability and a wider range of gender representation into the built environment.

There are other beacons of hope on the horizon. The worldwide infatuation with engineered timber products has to play into New Zealand’s hands. Kiwi locals from W&R Jacks established the first cross-laminated timber factory in Nelson – called XLam, it’s now owned and run from over-the-ditch where a large mega-factory has since been built for scaled production. Other design-build consultancies like Tallwood have sprung up from local urban development expertise coupled with established manufacture from the Stanley Modular folks. Central Otago now hosts New Zealand’s only homegrown Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) at NZSIPs. While other timber giants like Red Stag, have announced investment plans for central North Island CLT manufacture.

We also have an internationally revered engineering and architecture community – as exemplified by the recent NZ Wood Timber Design Awards, where I was honoured to be a judge. On your next trip to Wellington you must visit the overall winner at the National Library in Molesworth St, just up from the Beehive. There you will experience He Tohu designed by PrefabNZ Members Studio of Pacific Architecture – a digitally carved masterpiece that now houses our three most important founding documents including the suffragette petition and the Treaty of Waitangi. See here.

Do you consider other stakeholders to be getting on board with innovative construction using prefab?

Pamela: All this innovative offsite construction action has caught the attention of the industry, government and public. Minister Twyford addressed PrefabNZ’s annual CoLab event in 2018 citing 50% of KiwiBuild homes would be prefabricated. Even the group housing builders are starting to sing the praises of offsite manufacture (OSM) by joining the pre-assessed panels of providers for Housing NZ and KiwiBuild. Before we know it, the pre-nail roof truss and wall frame fabricators will be churning out panels that can be assembled at site into a watertight structure in a single day – just like they build ‘em in Sweden.

Whoa! We’re not quite at that last point of industry transformation yet – but Fletchers is establishing a panelised factory and joining PrefabNZ, so a tipping-point of sorts has been reached.

Pamela Bell is the CEO of PrefabNZ and can be contacted at pam@prefabnz.com

A link to Pam’s profile is here

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