LEGO’s The Way

Photos courtesy of HDB

This year, public housing will add another 25,000 units through BTO. Together with the earlier BTO projects still in construction, public housing will need some 30,000 construction workers, largely foreigners. The latter will need to be housed, mostly via foreign workers’ dormitories. Locating the dormitories is however a tricky business. Most Singaporeans will rather they be sited miles away. This is becoming increasingly difficult.

But we need to build more flats, and quickly.

We cannot do without foreign construction workers, but we can try to build more with less, if we raise construction productivity through standardisation and pre-fabrication. This is possible if we push for higher buildability and constructability in projects, coupled with the levy and manpower policy controls and other measures in the Construction Productivity Roadmap including, for example, more extensive use of dry walls. I am optimistic that this can be done, especially with HDB’s support as the biggest building developer in town.

Walls, floors, doors, toilets, rubbish chutes etc can all be standardised and building components can be manufactured off-site in bulk, in prefab factories. This will eliminate most of the labour intensive, dirty and cumbersome wet work on site, making construction sites cleaner, tidier, less dusty and less noisy. Off-site conditions are mostly better controlled, allowing productivity measures and quality checks to be carried out more effectively.

We have made some progress in this area in recent years. For public housing, 70% of building components are now precast where various parts of a HDB flat are fabricated off-site and then transported to the construction site for assembly. Prefabrication technology is now indispensable in HDB’s building programme.

I visited two prefab plants recently. They have helped raise construction productivity and it is great.

However, at the next stage of development, the prefab plants themselves also need to be transformed. The plants I visited are still relatively land and labour intensive. While they need less labour than construction sites, they still need many workers.

Our prefab industry is gearing up to up their own productivity. How?

The Netherlands and Germany boast precast plants which are highly computerised and automated, in multi-storey facilities. BCA labels such modern prefab plants as multi-storey Integrated Construction and Precast Hubs (ICPHs). These ICPHs will help us optimise land use and achieve higher productivity through automated production processes. BCA has formulated a masterplan for the development of these multi-storey ICPHs.

A local contractor, Tiong Seng Contractors, is paving the way, setting up Singapore’s first ICPH at Tuas. It will incorporate computerisation and semi-automated precasting. By doing so, they expect to cut their manpower needs by up to 70%:

The new ICPH needs only a third of the workers to produce almost double the tonnage of precast components. BCA is providing Tiong Seng with some funding support through its Construction Productivity and Capability Fund.  BCA will also be making more land available for such ICPHs in its masterplan.

I hope more contractors will come forward to participate in implementing this Construction Productivity Roadmap to transform our construction industry and raise its productivity. We will still need foreign construction workers, but in lesser numbers.

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