Warren McGregor is a business advisor and the CEO of prefabAUS – Australia’s key industry body for offsite construction.
PrefabAUS is focused on representing and advancing modern building prefabrication in Australia through collaborating with and educating a wide audience of architects, engineers and project managers regarding the benefits within the property sector.
In addition to his prefabAUS role, Warren is engaged as part of the advisory team at project management consultancy Turner & Townsend Thinc and Payton Capital.
TUD: You have a diverse professional background. How has this influenced your interest in the property sector, particularly in prefabricated construction?
My qualifications in economics, accounting and applied finance provided the foundation for what has turned out to be quite a varied career path. Prior to working in prefabricated construction, I worked in management consulting with KPMG, investment banking, project development, property advisory and finance.
An unexpected outcome from a holiday was that it turned into a 10-year management consulting stint in South-East Asia, where I gained exposure to many industries, often dictated by the sectors that were growing most rapidly and where local skills development was in catch-up mode. I returned to Australia in 2006 and have had a property focus since then, providing research and advice across many property asset classes ranging from office, retail, residential, industrial and infrastructure to aged care and retirement living for institutional, government, private and not-for-profit organisations.
My interest in prefabricated construction dates back to 2010 when I first considered modular options for an apartment development I was involved in. Unfortunately, our project was already too far advanced to seriously consider a modular solution. This issue remains a challenge today, and I would encourage anyone considering prefab solutions to do so right at the start of the project as that is when the potential benefits can best be captured. It is remarkable to reflect on the advances that have been made in the offsite construction industry over the last seven years.
TUD: How is building prefabrication advancing both nationally and internationally?
The industry is growing in Australia as the offsite construction sector continues to make impressive advances across a range of materials, processes and systems. However, in contrast to Sweden, where around 80% of homes incorporate factory-built elements, offsite construction remains at the early stages of living up to its potential here, at just 3% of the construction market in Australia. But offsite or prefab is growing at roughly twice the rate of the rest of Australian construction industry – what we are seeing is a catch-up game where people are not only recognising the benefits in our local context, but are now able to effectively incorporate offsite methodologies into their projects. In turn, this has led to more players committing to automation technologies that take construction into the realm of manufacturing processes and systems, whether that be modules, panels, bathroom pods, façade systems, modular wiring or other elements. In Australia, Strongbuild and Impresa House are just two examples of companies making significant capital investment in automation.
But it is not only construction industry firms that are taking up offsite construction. Some "disruptors" from outside the industry are also wading in. Founded in 2015 by the former CEO of a contract electronics manufacturer, American firm Katerra says it is now one of the top 25 US general contractors involved in multi-residential projects. Advances in materials are also having a big impact as demonstrated by the suite of CLT (cross-laminated timber) projects being undertaken in Australia, with more in the pipeline. And CLT itself is just one of the new and exciting ‘engineered timber’ solutions, along with glulam (glue-laminated timber) and LVL (laminated veneer lumber).
Prefabrication offers shorter project programs, more certainty for the client and it benefits the environment, with less waste, less onsite construction resources and a safer, quieter and cleaner overall build site. prefabAUS is passionate about the role of prefabrication in transforming our built environment, such as decreasing construction time frames and construction waste while increasing quality, productivity and affordability.
TUD: How has building prefabrication altered with advances in technology?
The possibilities are expanding exponentially. Previously, much of the offsite construction effort focused on alternative ways to deliver the same kinds of buildings. Now however, attention is increasingly being directed to achieving superior built form outcomes. For example, the session on “The future and innovation” in this year’s conference features speakers from Germany, Sweden, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as leading exponents in Australia and New Zealand. These are practitioners who are pushing the boundaries of prefab architecture and construction.
TUD: What can we expect at the prefabAUS 2017 conference?
Our theme for this year’s prefabAUS conference is “Growing. Innovating. Revolutionising.” We will be looking to the future trends that are likely to shape both prefabricated building and the construction industry more widely. Our keynote international speaker is Mark Farmer, author of the hard-hitting report Modernise or Die, which addresses the shortcomings of the UK construction industry and sets out a compelling argument for change that has already been adopted by the UK government. Mark’s analysis resonates globally, though, and has much relevance in the Australian context.