The Modular Solution

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-By Claire Suttles

Aussie Modular Solutions has an answer for challenging work sites, overpriced construction, and remote locations: the prefabricated building. Two companies with the same directors, Aussie Portables and Alternative Living, recently merged to offer a full range of building solutions across multiple industries. The newly expanded company designs, engineers, and manufactures transportable and prefabricated homes for the residential market, transportable buildings and units for the commercial market, and prefabricated buildings, camp accommodations and dongas for the resource industry. AMS’s success in providing an alternative to traditional construction has been recognised through multiple awards, including several from the HIA Housing Awards, the Housing Excellence Awards, and HIA GreenSmart.

AMS’s residential housing division was launched relatively recently and the team is currently focused on expanding it further. “That side of the business has been growing steadily,” General Manager Tim Tudor-Owen reports. “We’ve got a good product.” The company’s modular homes are a solution for many housing needs, particularly those that arise in remote areas where “you can’t get tradespeople to go,” or where construction is prohibitively expensive due to the mining boom. “It’s a lot more cost effective for the client if we build the house here and transport it,” Mr Tudor-Owen explains. The team completes all the steps needed for a residential job, including transport and installation. “That’s part of the package,” Mr Tudor-Owen says. “We offer a turnkey solution. We do [everything], the landscaping, fencing, carports and the driveway.”

AMS has over 30 standard models for clients to choose from, ranging in size from cosy, single bedroom vacation cottages, to rambling, four bedroom homes. And even more options are available. “Sometimes clients say, ‘I’d like the bathroom shifted here, I’d like that room a bit bigger,’” Mr Tudor-Owen reports. “Everything can be customised as they want. There are no issues with that.” After choosing a model, clients can review product samples and consult with a representative to decide on details such as finishes, carpet colours, flooring, paint colours, kitchen cabinets, and bench tops.

AMS also runs a commercial division that supplies transportable structures for a variety of building companies and government projects. Many of these companies acquire modular units for the purpose of hiring them out for clients. Government projects include manufacturing modular classrooms and toilet blocks to meet the needs of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) stimulus and supplying prison accommodations for prison expansions. Mr Tudor-Owen explains that modular buildings are ideal for crowded prisons because the structures can easily fit into tight locations, yet are sturdy enough to house inmates securely.

Of course, constructing modular buildings for the mining and resource industry is AMS’s core business. The company builds facilities for the construction phase of a mine and for permanent camps. The more cost-effective, panel buildings are designed to house construction workers during the two to four year construction phase of a camp. However, Mr Tudor-Owen reports that, “Even the panel buildings have been used for 20 years. They’re very strong.” AMS’s steel frame buildings are designed to last for the entire 30 to 40 years that the mine will operate, and offer mining personnel a home and community, not just a place to sleep. Keeping isolated mining personnel well-housed and content is a major concern for the resource industry. “[There is] a lot more emphasis on having great facilities, not just great accommodation,” Mr Tudor-Owen explains. “It does make a very big difference for the retention on site if all those facilities are A-1.” The company supplies the remote camps with all the trappings of a small town, including kitchens, taverns, gymnasiums, recreation rooms, laundry facilities, and accommodation. The modular accommodations make a “proper house,” Mr Tudor-Owen says, with precast concrete floors, steel frame walls and roofs, painted gyprock walls and ceilings, carpeted floors, and tiled bathrooms.

Many of the buildings that AMS constructs for mining camps are extremely large and complex. The largest has been a 3,000 square meter, 68 floor commercial grade kitchen. The massive structure was manufactured in the company’s yard, and then disassembled for delivery. Modular designs are flexible, and can accommodate any design layout.

AMS manufactures modular buildings in its yard using two different types of floor structures. The first is a steel chassis that is fabricated in-house. For delivery, units are raised onto a truck with a forklift or crane, transported to site, and then offloaded and positioned with a crane. The second type of floor is of precast concrete and requires a special transport company with a jacking crew for delivery. The transport company jacks the building into the air, drives the trailer underneath, and slowly lowers the structure onto a purpose built trailer. The crew then drives the modular building to site, places the trailer in the appropriate location, jacks the structure up, moves the trailer out of the way, and lowers the modular structure into position. The site layout, existing structures, and road infrastructure all come into play when choosing the floor structure, and the team has to remain flexible. “Sometimes we will change to a steel chassis if there isn’t enough room for the trucks to come in and out,” Mr Tudor-Owen explains. “With the steel chassis we can put a big crane up and drop them in from anywhere.”

For big jobs, AMS typically builds and transports the structures while another firm completes the installations. Mr Tudor-Owen says that communication is key when working on large-scale projects and delegating responsibilities. Contractors spend time in the yard to get to know the team and the structure before carrying out an installation. The team must be well organised and share all the necessary information to carry out the multi-step process as quickly and efficiently as possible. AMS must be sure that the installation company has every detail covered, including documentation from the testing performed in Perth, all the materials needed, and any extra assistance regarding sequencing. “It’s that line of communication; if we can get that line on every job they always go smoothly.”

Mr Tudor-Owen says that establishing and maintaining strong relationships with local suppliers and subcontractors is key to the company’s growth and success. AMS is “very appreciative” of the firms and individuals with which it works and recognises the importance of teamwork. For example, in one recent residential job, a client living in a remote location wanted a modular home installed, but realised that his 800 meter long driveway might not accommodate the transport truck. Through AMS, the problem was easily solved because, “We’ve got good relationships with three or four transport companies. So when one of them was in the area, one of the drivers just popped in and did a test run, just to make sure.” In the end, the client got his home without any complications and both AMS and the transport company benefited from his business.

Working with modular buildings has some major advantages over traditional construction. Being able to assess a modular building before it leaves the yard is one of them. All units are fully assembled and tested at the fabrication facility so that the team knows everything is functioning properly before it goes to site. This is particularly important when buildings are bound for remote locations. “[We can] invite the client to come in and witness inspections so they know the power is on, all the lights work, all the taps work,” Mr Tudor-Owen reports. “That’s key to having a successful project.” Client inspections also allow for last minute changes. “They come in and have a look and say that’s exactly what they wanted… Or they might want to change the tiles.”

Mr Tudor-Owen believes that the biggest advantage of modular construction is the ability to build in a controlled environment. The company’s work falls “more in the manufacturing sector than the construction sector,” he explains, and many of the problems associated with traditional construction are eliminated. Working within a fabrication facility means that modular buildings are always secure during construction, even overnight. Tradespeople are always under supervision and the AMS workforce is always available to complete the job on time and within budget. The end result is a shorter build time and quality work guaranteed through careful monitoring.

There is a strong market for modular buildings in Australia today and AMS isn’t the only company to offer an alternative to traditional construction. “There is competition definitely,” Mr Tudor-Owen reports. But, “There are only a few companies that have the skills and the experience to do [the larger modular projects].” To compete with the companies that do have the capacity to take on major jobs, the team strives to keep its price right and offer superior service and quality. “We’re getting a lot of repeat business with mining companies. The fact that we’re being awarded [repeat] contracts is evidence that we’re not just pricing the jobs correctly but doing a good job.” AMS’s simple strategy of offering a job well done has worked extremely well, and the team plans to continue relying on superior work to maintain its edge. “You’re only as good as your last job,” Mr Tudor-Owen insists.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:53 PM AEDT