Innovating construction to cut prices

  • Construction
  • Saturday, 04 Nov 2017

HDB building: The PinnacleDuxton, a HDB public housing estate in the Tanjong Pagar district of Singapore. — Bloomberg

AT the Master Builders Association Malaysia (MBAM) Building and Construction Conference 2017, the education and research arm of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said Singapore had to ramp up to between 30,000 and 40,000 housing units under the Housing Development Board (HDB).

Like Malaysia today, it had to build as quickly and for as many as possible, said BCA Academy dean John Keung.

Keung was giving a keynote address at the conference on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur.

It was the early 1980s and had the city state continued with the conventional way of building, it would have taken a very long time to house the people.

And like Malaysia today, there was this issue of cost.

“There is a cost premium. But there are instances where a country has to weigh which is more important. If the provision of affordable housing is important, the money has to be spent to get it done as quickly as possible and to benefit as many as possible,” Keung says.

He says once the industry has been “enabled”, in terms of experience and designing, over time the cost will come down.

In the case of HDB units, it was a case of between 300 and 1,000 units per project. There is a lot of repetition and after these couple of decades, the industry has moved by leaps and bounds to incorporate various technology.

If the labour cost is low in Malaysia, it may be difficult to make a case for the switch but the changes and the benefits that accompany the switch will be reaped in the long term, says Keung.

To encourage the switch, Singapore put in place various strategies.

Singapore was paying high levy charges every month for its foreign workers. In order to encourage bringing in skilful workers, the higher the skills, the lower the levy.

“If the foreign worker had only basic skills, the levy would be higher,” says Keung.

The city state took a multi-prong approach. Besides manpower, it also set up the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), which is similar to the Construction Industry Development Board Malaysia (CIDB).

In the case of the BCA, it regulates both the building industry and issues building and construction permits.

“We were both a regulator and a champion of the industry,” says Keung.

Sustainable industry

As a regulator, it put in place scoreboards and employed engineers, contractors, architects to do all that was necessary to have an efficient and sustainable industry while at the same time, one which continues to embrace new technology.

“It is easy to make policies but we also walk the talk,” says Keung.

As a result of all these policies, Singapore last year put together the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport hotel “Lego-style”. Known as prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), the technology comes under the broad heading Industrial Building Systems (IBS), a modernised method of construction.

Its prefabricated units were already fitted with carpeting and other plush fixtures found in a hotel room. The units were fabricated in Shanghai, before it was shipped to Singapore, to be assembled on site. An average of 10 PPVC modules were assembled per day from 10pm to 5am.

This method of construction cut manpower by 40%, from 75 to 45 workers. It took three to four days to construct a floor, compared with 14-21 days using conventional construction methods. The hotel is the first private sector commercial building to be completed using the PPVC method.

The changes must come with strong incentives for the industry to change. Since 2010, Singapore set aside S$800mil (RM2.48bil) to fund the transformation, says Keung. It has already used S$480mil (RM1.49bil).

Innovation in construction: Pre-fabricating housing units cuts manpower by 40 and saves time. — HDB pic
Innovation in construction: Pre-fabricating housing units cuts manpower by 40 and saves time. — HDB pic

It has all sorts of funding support, grants, schemes and sponsorship to upgrade workers skills and training. Even sub-contractors are targeted because innovation and raising productivity at every level is crucial. It also encouraged young people to enter different sectors of the industry.

It also trains about 30,000 students, 95% of whom are working professionals.

“We want to make sure our industry is geared up with people who know what to do. If you cannot get young people into this industry, there is no future in this industry,” he says. In the last four to five years, it has given 3,000 scholarships/sponsorships covering all kinds of programmes.

Keung says in order to drive drastic and transformation, public agencies must change. There must also be a combination of regulatory levels and financing incentives and there must be a rejuvenation of workers.

During a question and answer time, a participant commented that when he graduated from university, there was this talk about using IBS in order to modernise our construction industry.

“I am about to retire now, and we are still talking about the cost of moving into IBS,” he laments.

Master Builders Association Malaysia president Foo Chek Lee says there is the persistent issue about cost and equipping workers. In a pre-Budget 2018 telephone interview, Foo said technology will help reduce the cost of affordable housing tend to be repetitive in nature.

Cost of construction over the long term can be reduced although the initial cost may be high, says Foo.

“As affordable housing is quite standard, this will help to bring down prices.

“A single floor can be completed in a week compared to between 80 and 100 days using current methods of construction,” he says.

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