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Hamish Davies

Director, Architecture GHD

Hamish Davies: we need to have a go at introducing prefab products at scale into NZ

Leading the afternoon Summit panel session at the NZ International Building Expo & Summit is MC Hamish Davies, Director of Architecture at GHD.

Under this year’s Summit title of ‘Off Site, Off Shore’, Hamish will lead a discussion forum comprising industry experts, professionals, government, and stakeholders as they debate the challenges and opportunities of offshore prefabrication or modular building in current market conditions.

Impartial as he will be during the debate, he took the opportunity ahead of the conference to give us his own views on some of the challenges and issues that the sector faces:

Is NZ ready for prefabricated, modular products and homes?

It is. The sheer fact that we have a housing crisis, reflected in the fact that the ability to supply is completely outstripped by demand, and resulting cost, proves it.

To disrupt the market, we need the equivalent of digital marketplace technology. The technology in the residential market is prefabrication and modularisation: the most accessible disruptive technology we can utilise.

How much off-site, offshore prefabrication work is happening right now?

Not a lot. We see a lot of enquiries, we look at a lot of schemes, and we have made a number of trips to China to look at examples of pre-fabrication and modularisation in practice. Clients come to us and say, ‘here’s a traditional multi-residential project: can you modularise it?’ There is a lot of talk and thought about it, but the rate of conversion is quite low.

In terms of what’s driving this low rate, it has a lot to do with the regulatory environment that exists. The system is set up primarily for traditional building methods and this is very different. Many factors in modular supply are very different to traditional processes, and the system is not yet adaptable enough to accommodate them. Therefore, local and national Government levels need to adapt to accommodate it.

And there’s the matter of price

We have to concede that we are at the bottom of the world. No matter how cheap a product is in China, we are still a long way away. Logistics requirements-wise, if you are not building near a port in New Zealand, you still have quite a cost to locate your imported modules onto your site, which raises the cost.

Additionally, our construction market is not at all mature in this space. Even if you get all the logistics ducks in a row you will still need to rely on a local contractor to put it all together. They have to be willing and experienced in it, and there are not a lot of those people around for large scale projects.

Also, architects like to make everything site-specific, so we naturally start to lose interest when it is a clip-together, Coronation Street-style scape. However, it doesn’t take a lot to change the exterior of a building to generate a streetscape.

How can we overcome these challenges?

To get something of scale going will need a change in the regulatory environment, in my view. We need to send a signal to the market saying, ‘this is ok in New Zealand’. If you get the signal from the top it will give the players in the market to have confidence to give it a go.

We can affect price through the regulatory environment – and this is the right starting place. At the moment, everything is a guinea pig – and the first adopters always pay the price through design, consenting and with their contractors. However, somebody will be brave enough to do it, and there are some companies out there brave enough to get it underway.

What can Chinese and NZ companies do more to work better together to deliver great prefabricated products here for easy and cost-effective assembly?

Confidence needs to develop on both sides. Chinese developers need to be confident that they can actually do business here, with local and central government taking them seriously and giving them due consideration, then working with them to make it happen.

Also, the New Zealand side needs to have confidence that what is going to be delivered here is of sufficient quality and that it meets our Building Code requirements. This can be done through changing the certification process, certifying modules wherever they are being built offshore.

The opportunity here is immense if we can disrupt at scale

We need some disruption in the industry, and there are many repetitive things we do – not just with housing, but across other sectors with typologies that have a lot of repetitive elements. These include for example prisons, schools, aged care, anywhere with a cellular, typical arrangement of rooms: repetitive elements that occur over and over.

If you repeat a system 60-100 times on a site, then you can really get an idea of how to assemble a building with factory levels of quality control, minimise site time and cost for the client.

Small prefab projects are a cost risk – they need scale. At 6-8 household units we don’t see any cost advantage over traditional construction. What you need is 100+ units, and potentially an umbrella organisation brave enough to iron out all the issues.

If you take modular components and assemble together you make gains on site, where cost is a function of time on site. None of this is particularly new, but we just need an attitudinal shift right across the board. It might cause a change in some of the skills required on site, becoming a bit more like assembling a high-end motor vehicle.  

The allusion to the motor industry is interesting. The closure of assembly plants in Geelong saw a lot of those guys come out of that industry and into modular construction. I ask, ‘if millions or people are happy to drive a Toyota Corolla, why make the construction industry so bespoke?’

After all, we can dress buildings in all sorts of ways. The modules we have designed allow a weathering face over the top where we can achieve the individualisation that councils’ urban planning controls demand, so you can easily point out your own front door.

Have a go

We need to have a go here. What have we got to lose? If we wrap that around a strong enough compliance framework so we don’t create dangerous buildings, then what do we have to lose? We need to sanction some test cases through Government agencies tasked with building, mandating them to try it out.

We have a number of crises – a lack of supply, ever-escalating costs – and they demand us to think outside the box!


Hamish Davies Bio

Hamish offers a broad range of experience of leading projects including apartment and housing projects, aged care facilities, healthcare, police stations, office buildings and commercial fitouts. Hamish works with clients to develop major projects, starting with formulating the client brief, evolving a concept through to documentation and construction.

His skills encompass: concept design, design team and stakeholder management, project direction and client relationship management. He is particularly skilled in interpreting complex briefs and providing innovative design responses. In his 23 year career as an architect, Hamish has worked in NZ and Australia, enabling him to bring a broad perspective of leading practice to his projects.