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How prefabrication can drive innovation in Hong Kong's property market

Aurecon’s John Webb shares how prefabrication can pave the way for Buildings of the Future in Hong Kong.

This year, we have seen discussions around Buildings of the Future grow wider and deeper. As we continue to explore its layers and tenets, it is also important to analyse how the Buildings of the Future will look within the unique contexts present in different regions.

Aurecon hosted an industry forum earlier this year to shine a spotlight on Buildings of the Future from a Hong Kong perspective. After an energetic session rich with layered and often at times conflicting viewpoints, a few common key themes emerged – prefabrication, advanced manufacturing, role of Government, saving space, attracting tenants and talent, and the use of data for building performance.

Prefabrication is great but designs must keep improving the response of buildings to their urban context

In the future, we expect a continued drive towards prefabricating large chunks of buildings and assembling these components on site. Repetition, and standardisation of components will make prefabrication more economical. It may also make the buildings very dull! Good building design will always respond to its context in the community and the environment, as well as containing technological advances.

Good design is always likely to contain some bespoke components. The skill of the designers will be to work the bespoke components into a design that has character and responds to the context and to the. These skills are regularly displayed in the context of steel buildings, facades and other componentry. Extending this to fully finished chunks is likely to be more challenging.

What is the impact on the supply chain? If you are a manufacturer of prefabricated building components, you will need to be able to readily and economically produce individually different components to maintain relevance into the future.

For the forum participants, there was a strong desire to do more than just producing an economical and technological outcome. The industry will be striving to enhance the urban fabric as well as produce advanced, economical buildings. Design trumps technology!

Integration of design information linked to advanced manufacturing is a key part of the future

Manufacturers of prefabricated will need to be able to readily produce many bespoke elements to remain relevant into the future.

Fabrication of large building components off site has gathered pace in many locations recently. The demand for this form of construction from clients is limited, with the drivers being time saving, factory quality and using lower cost labour. The push is generally coming from the contractors. The potential is there to link design information to advanced manufacturing, but the information is commonly in ‘digital silos’ with limited connectivity. The breakthrough will come when the information can flow effectively and the power of new materials and advanced manufacturing can produce standardised and bespoke components efficiently.

The potential to create highly bespoke elements can be seen in the recent futuristic “Kooky Cubby” project.

Do procurement methods used in Hong Kong encourage this type of development? On the recent Sunshine Coast University Hospital in Queensland, significant components of the building including service risers were prefabricated and then assembled on site. This relied on the drive of the contractor Lend Lease pushing for the advance during design and detailed 3D drawings prepared by Aurecon. Would this be likely or even possible under a traditional build only contract, or even under the highly prescriptive Design and Build methods used in Hong Kong?

And what is the role governments can play in shaping innovation in the design and construction of buildings?

Governments can play a role in creating the future

Government policy and the behaviour of government agencies can substantially influence the willingness of the industry to innovate and create the future. Singapore’s innovation agenda around Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC) has created a new industry. Singapore also has an innovation agenda around BIM and timber construction, encouraging government agencies to incorporate other ‘smart’ features into new developments. Hong Kong has a much more limited agenda, and the attitude of many government agencies to innovation and new techniques makes building owners very wary of trying something new. The saying “We can’t approve it because it has not been done before” is a beacon for being stuck in the past.

The consensus is that governments can force some innovation, but should not be too prescriptive in order to achieve the most spectacular results. Agencies should respond in an open and helpful manner. In a future post, I will look at the potential for innovation beyond the ‘wonder widget’. Unfortunately a limited view of innovation makes it more difficult to innovate and limits the success of the results.

Sometimes government initiatives have unexpected consequences. The concession to exclude the area of precast walls from the gross floor area calculation greatly boosted the use of precast concrete in high rise residential construction. This had all the benefits associated with this type of construction - reduced site labour, improved safety, improved quality, less wastage. The downside was that developers started to make panels unnecessarily thick, effectively wasting concrete to inflate the saleable area of an apartment, without effecting the amount of floor area they were able to build on the site. Effectively this was wasting concrete to trick the buyer, hardly an environmentally acceptable approach.

Governments need to be careful not to produce this type of consequence!

The Buildings of the Future: Hong Kong Industry Forum was hosted by Aurecon with representatives from Arcadis, Atkins, Farrells, Gammon, JLL, Leighton, Mapletree, Nan Fung Developments, and Woods Bagot as participants.

Learn about saving space, and attracting tenants and talent in the Hong Kong market. For further insights, visit 'Buildings of the Future’ at Aurecon.

This article is an adaptation of parts one, two and three, of a six-part series titled, 'Buildings of the Future: What's happening and what's not in HK', originally published on LinkedIn by John Webb. 

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