Flat-pack your house? Why modular and prefabricated construction is the future of housing

The housing sector, along with coal fired electricity generation, remains one of the last bastions where 200 year old technologies are regularly used in the 21st Century.

Not much difference between old and modern framing methods.

By comparison, and driven by manufacturing technologies, the way we get around has changed a lot more over a similar timescale.

What sort of homes should we be investing in?

Our climate is changing and our homes need to be more resilient to withstand greater temperature and weather extremes. With Australian households currently making up around 12% of national carbon emissions,¹ we need to reduce emissions from our houses if we are going to leave our children a safe planet to grow up on.

It’s also worth considering from a global perspective that Australia lags behind in housing quality, with the energy efficiency of our housing lagging far behind the rest of the developed world.² 'How' and 'how quickly?' we can build better quality and better performing houses remain the key questions for our decisions on how we plan to build our homes.

Why modular and prefabricated construction is a large part of the answer

The materials efficiency, quality and performance gains achievable by connecting our residential building industry to the effectiveness of modern manufacturing means the development of modular and prefabricated housing will continue. 

Types of prefabrication:

prefab modules image 2.png

2D prefab building components

• Complete walls and building assemblies, usually requiring craning into place.

• Panelised systems delivering parts of a house.

3D prefab building - volumetric

• Pre-manufactured 3D sections of houses.

• Pod units within houses eg. kitchen/bathroom pods.³ ⁴

Why flat-packed panels?

Our journey at Habitech began by exploring how manufacturing efficiencies can best be coupled to the way we build houses in Australia. We’ve a range of modular approaches now in operation and further approaches in development.

A focus on sustainability and Cradle to Cradle⁵ mindset led us to panelised construction being the best solution with the benefits of panels and flat-pack transport providing:

• Design flexibility - being more than one object or style allows for wider applications.

• Environmental performance - material efficiency and insulation performance.

• Flat-pack transport efficiency avoids transport limiting design approaches and opens up options for the location of homes on a property. There’s no need for steel frames to just lift the house and transport costs are minimised.

• Site access flexibility.

• Hand liftable panel modules minimise the need for site cranes.

• Maintains a carpentry skill base in our housing sector.

These are also the reasons we are able to architecturally design and build houses cheaper than companies offering similar quality houses with a volumetric (or as we call it - 'truck the box') approach.

Future Technologies

While the approaches above form the prefabricated home options currently getting traction in Australia, we should also be looking at a host of new technologies being explored:

• Robotics automating the most enduring modular unit, the house brick, and it's modern off-shoot the concrete block.

• 3D printing of building components.

• On-site 3D printing of whole houses - take the factory to site.

Are we getting smarter?

Being the ‘conservative’ conservationists that we are, we ask a prime question of all new technologies and the resources they use: What is the environmental and social impact of a material and/or technology over time?

We still find timber hard to beat and it sits at the heart of our modular panel construction. If harvested sustainably it is hard to beat for the wide range of environmental benefits it generates as it grows, including the carbon it can draw down from the atmosphere and lock-up in the houses we live in.

We are also yet to see any human system that can rival timber in its ability to manufacture itself from a $2 seedling with virtually no work.