The modern world of modular buildings
December, 09, 2015
Business First Magazine
When John Zendler began his career as a carpenter at the age of 20, with a new wife and baby in tow, little did he envisage he would be at the forefront of the modular construction industry. Today, as the executive general manager of both of CIMC Developments Australia and CIMC Modular Building Systems, he is leading the charge in changing the way we look at construction.
Due to his early-life family circumstances, John Zendler took his career more seriously than most 19-year olds.
"I had to make every post a winner from day one," he says. This probably set my mind towards moving through the industry in increasingly bigger roles."
John was also good at what he did. He attributes part of his fast rise to the fact that the companies that he worked for tended to make more money with his around.
"As a consequence I haven't applied for a role for a long time. My last few roles have been through companies approaching me due to the success I've had."
Of course there is a serious work ethic involved in that attraction.
"When I embarked on this journey, we (his wife) bought a house at a very young age and interest rates were at 12%. You certainly weren't going to pay that off on a $190 aweek apprentice wage. So the begainning of my career, I was on the tools during the day and then spending 50+ hours working in hotels and bars at night. During that point I really learned the value of hard work. Then, as my career progressed I learnt success is combination of hard work, but also working intelligently; finding the best use of your time."
John says in the building game that tends to come through innovation.
"You need to innovate. It is innovate or die in the building game. You've got to find a better way. So I've always worked at that. In the construction industry, I've always been drawn towards the aspects of the industry that are challenging the norm and pushing innovation."
Which brings us to the modular building industry: an industry that really does suit John's passion for innovation. He wrote in an article titled Prefabrication Offers Relief to Construction Cost Crisis, "It is my recent observation that there are sectors within the Australian real estate development market that are becoming constrained in their ability to deliver assets due to the increasing cost of construction."
"Project sponsors and developers are seeking new technologies to enhance and improve on traditional construction techniques to deliver projects at lower cost, in less time and without compromising the quality of the development."
"In my opinion emerging prefabrication and modular construction technologies have the potential to play a significant role in helping to address this construction cost affordability crisis."
The global reach and influence of CIMC eases the burden of meeting this crisis head on.
When John was approached by CIMC, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to join a global organisation with a multi-billion dollar balance sheet and the same time, well and truly embraces innovation.
"We're a company that is prepared to do what it takes. We seek opportunities for growth and an opportunities to test new markets and we're not shy about it. The CIMC Group has been incredibly supportive of R&D intiatives and the innovations that we've put through at CIMC Modular Building Systems Australia "
Whilst China CIMC is the engine room with a vast team of engineers, the western influence is strong. The UK and Australian design teams works collaboratively with China.
“My design team has just come back from China recently from being over on a week-long R&D and design and engineering session. We really see ourselves as one global team. We’re playing a role in a global strategy. But from a China point of view, we love the fact that we can get a handle on the market, communicate to the team in China what we believe the product needs to do and that there’s opportunity here if we’re able to develop a product that can meet the market demand. We find a way to make it happen. We have some exciting projects going through our business at the moment: a 24 storey, 4.5 Star hotel, 330 room hotel that is being built by full volumetric construction coming out of China. It’s a unique challenge but one that we are embracing."
And this is occurring all over the world.
Patrick Fitzgibbon, senior vice president, development, Europe & Africa at Hilton Worldwide said, “CIMC’s capacity to deliver modular sections of the building to the final hotel site offers an incredible opportunity to overcome many of the challenges faced during construction. Alongside potential time and cost efficiencies, CIMC’s ability to provide senior debt to developers using its modular building technique underpins its robust growth model, and we are seeing more and more opportunity for this structure in mature markets such as the UK, and developing economies, most notably in Africa.”
CIMC is no stranger to modular solutions for hotels. It has delivered key structures for a number of budget hotel developments including several Travelodge and Premier Inn sites. Travelodges in Heathrow, Uxbridge and Warminster, and Premier Inns in Hull, Gatwick, Blackpool and Manchester have seen the construction method tested first for extensions, then for complete hotels.
There are hurdles including funding.
“The notion of building a 200+ room hotel which goes 20 storeys in the air out of volumetric modular construction rather than conventional construction is a new idea, so therefore the banks want to sit back and see what happens,” John says.
“So, yet again, another example of CIMC’s commitment to this sort of innovation and development is that for the majority of these projects we are the senior debt providers. We negotiate our commercial outcomes in our global headquarters in Shenzhen and then down in the Guangdong province which is about two hours south from there, is where our main manufacturing and design hub is. The facility covers over a million square meters with 6000 workers and with all of the supporting procurements and engineering teams, as well as some western supervision. So, we don’t see the Australian, UK and Chinese teams as individual teams, we see ourselves as one global team.”
Modular isn’t quite the building design of choice just yet, but it is gaining traction.
“The domain of the modular systems was predominantly mining camps and some areas like school buildings where classrooms needed to go up over the school holidays. However due to the nature of aspects within the Australian construction industry, developers are now very constrained in their ability to deliver assets because of the cost of construction.”
Areas that are facing an affordability crisis include hotels. The cost of conventional construction is preventing their projects from stacking up financially. There is a very similar situation with student accommodation and aged care and multi-residential housing are also facing issues.
“I think various forms of prefabrication, whether it just be bathroom pods or full volumetric modular construction, has gained enormous acceptance in the last three years and the market is starting to become very interested and far more open to the idea of volumetric construction. The predominant driver is usually the ability to reduce costs and create significant time savings. A modular development will get constructed in less than 50% of the time of a conventional construction.”
Across the industry there are a number of projects in the pipeline all at various stages of design and construction. These include branded hotels in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne for Hilton, Accor, Marriott and Hyatt, residential apartments in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne, student accommodation and high density aged care facilities in locations throughout our capital cities and regional centres.
The industry is still in its infancy, but it is gaining traction and CIMC is at the forefront. However it does need more understanding from partners.
“The industry faces a number of constraints some of which include the number of consultants who understand the modular building system,” John says.
“Modular suppliers across Australia have been working with a number of consultants across all disciplines to ensure that there is a high level of understanding of the system. In turn this will reduce the likelihood of scope ambiguity and increased contingencies as well as broaden the number of consultants over the next few years with a greater proportion of projects being initiated. Similarly there is a small pool of local builders who understand the relationship between the modular and conventional works within a design. Working with a few select builders in each of the sectors we are active in has helped to create a greater knowledge of the modular system and confidence in the cost and delivery of the projects.”
Modular or volumetric building is a new phenomenon, however it is an innovative and sustainable way to breathe life into struggling developments, whilst reducing cost burdens.
It is this sort of innovation and the associated hard work that attracted John in the first place and you get the sense that he is determined, much like he was when he was a 19- year-old apprentice, to really push this new phenomenon into something that is accepted on a much larger scale. BFM