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Nonda Katsalidis is a practising director at Fender Katsalidis Architects (FKA), based in Melbourne, Australia. Together with the Hickory Group construction team, he has proposed Australia 108 – a 388-metre high-rise, mixed-use development planned for Melbourne’s Southbank – under their Unitised Building banner. This collaboration attempts to advance the built environment through prefabrication methods, effectively manufacturing architecture.
Jacqui Alexander: How was pioneering the Unitised Building system achievable within the constraints of practice?
Nonda Katsalidis: We were looking for solutions that made buildings more economical, more rational. We originally started with remote housing, such as holiday houses, and then realised that these structures could be applicable to taller buildings, and we’ve focused on taller buildings ever since, because that’s where it makes the most economic sense. We had some real projects, the first was Little Hero in Russell Place, and we were able to do it within part of the development process. The site was too small to provide car parking and you couldn’t go into the ground. But the market had just changed enough to allow a building without any car parking to succeed.
JA: Can UB unlock sites previously considered undevelopable?
NK: Even on a substation, [UB] did make it easier because it was an existing building, so the loads were limited to what was there. The other thing that we’ve looked at is extending on top of operational supermarkets. [UB] minimises disruption because it happens so quickly and the lighter construction allows you to add things to pre-existing structures.
JA: What are the environmental advantages of UB over traditional methods of construction?
NK: Lighter construction requires less footings – saving on concrete and excavation – and reduces the amount of fuel that goes into lifting and transporting a building. [UB] uses mostly steel, which has superior recycling advantages. It’s safer because it’s being built on the ground, with a more inclusive labour force, opening the door to more women, apprentices and retaining older workers for longer due to better working conditions.
JA: Is there less work for contractors, with all building works transferred to the factory?
NK: Yes, as long as more efficient construction means you can do more with less – and that’s including workers. Skilled workers are disappearing and it’s easier to train younger people in a controlled environment in a factory rather than on the aggressive external building sites.
JA: If UB’s efficiency reduces overall development costs, could this be a solution to the affordable housing crisis or will developers see this as an opportunity to make more profit?
NK: They will. The nature of markets is that if the developer sold something below market value, the purchaser would cash it in for the difference and make the profit. So, unless the whole market comes down as a result of a cheaper construction method that starts to increase supply, it doesn’t work. Affordable housing is a misnomer, no one gives you the same amount of area and quality with a lesser price – markets are markets, I’m afraid.
JA: How does the role of the architect change undertaking a UB project?
NK: You actually have to pre-document every detail, so things can be ordered and procured at the right time, you can’t put things off. It’s a much higher level of documentation. It’s a lot of responsibility for the architects, particularly in comparison to the normal process of shop drawings and details.
JA: What’s the process of correcting defects? Is this a much more costly exercise?
NK: There are probably less defects than you normally get as it’s from a more controlled environment. It just gets fixed on site. It’s too big to go back. We’ve never sent anything back.
JA: Little Hero has a 50-year lifespan. Is that figure in regard to its current form?
NK: Any system, whether it’s concrete or steel or prefab, would have to specify a theoretical lifespan – though it’s not like a jar of yoghurt that’s got a use-by-date. You can refurbish them, material steel doesn’t really wear out. You can pull them apart the way you put them together, but it’s a question of whether it’s economical to do that.
JA: Apartments in Australia are typically inflexible and are often dismissed as a long-term housing option for this reason. Is there scope for adaptation or consolidation of UB modules?
NK: You could open up to two- or three- metre openings without any additional structure. You wouldn’t need an engineer. You would have to cut out the steelwork, but it would be self-supporting with a reasonable size opening. And if you wanted a bigger opening, you would have to put in a beam like you do in a brick building.
JA: Do you think prefabrication still has a bad image in Australia?
NK: It’s this idea that things are impermanent. That’s why we called it Unitised Building – we break buildings up into units that can be manufactured off-site. We’ve had no market resistance. People don’t ask [what] it’s made out of, they just look at the price and the fitout and they buy it. When you’re asking people to make individual decisions on houses, it’s a bit different, more personal. The biggest saving to be made is in the commercial area, where the construction pressures are much more onerous. Housing is just very, very cheap anyway, whereas the mass production and time advantage is, in bigger commercial construction, very strong.