The arrival of the first prefabricated homes from southern China's Guangzhou to Hobsonville Point has sparked debate after an Auckland Council chief indicated such schemes had big potential.
Chris Darby, Auckland Council's planning committee chairman and a North Shore councillor, said the new Modul homes by Nielston Group's Tony Houston and Robyn Neil were a refreshing addition to the housing sector.
"It's a far cry from the school prefab. To achieve ambitious housing targets, bespoke architecture and traditional construction methodologies are out the window and scaleable architecture and modular construction are here to stay," Darby said.
Modular construction plants were already running elsewhere in New Zealand he said, citing Fletcher Residential's new factory in Puhinui and Concision Panelised Technology's Rolleston plant south of Christchurch.
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Housing Minister Megan Woods visited the Hobsonville site earlier this month.
Neilston Group showed off the technique to place modules for the first three terrace homes, lifted into place in a day.
Open homes are arranged by appointment at 23 Nuggett Ave. The first units have been finished on that street.
Houston said this week his company had spent the past three years developing the systems to enable it to build the homes off-site in Guangzhou after site preparation and finishing.
"You can't do it here because it's too expensive. We've set the business up for affordable homes, particularly Kiwibuild. We've been working with Kianga Ora and HLC for the last three years," he said.
If cars were built like New Zealand houses, they would cost $2m each, he said.
The Chinese prefabs could satisfy demand for 500 to 1000 places a year as they only took about 17 days to ship here, the Guangzhou factory could build all New Zealand's annual housing stock in 12 weeks and he is building more Modul homes at Hobsonville Point and Mt Roskill.
Darby said traditional house building methods and prefab techniques could exist in harmony.
"I'm fine with imported and locally produced prefab products. Each will keep the other on their toes," he said.
One sceptic said the speed of construction at Hobsonville Point, shown in a video, was amazing, "but a steel home shipped from China seems out of step with climate change and supporting local industries and employment".
But Darby said the true carbon footprint could only be understood if all the inputs were measured, including sea freight.
"In the absence of such an evaluation tool, we can only make assumptions about CO2 outputs. Maybe it beats the labour-intensive traditional stud and nog approach hands down," Darby said.
A critic described the Hobsonville Point homes as "butt-ugly. No aesthetic value whatsoever. Can you imagine a whole neighbourhood that looks like that? With each unit costing $650,000? Yikes."
Joel Cayford, a planning specialist, described the new homes as not much different from re-purposed containers trucked to Hobsonville Point from the city's port.
Another critic described the concept as "more cheap Chinese rubbish we will end up fixing in years to come along with all the cheap stainless steel plumbing that is already rusting.
Asked to respond to criticism from people fearing the homes' origins given the pandemic, Houston said: "The tests that have been done show no correlation with the virus lasting on surfaces for any length of time."
The transport time from China was more than four weeks in total so the ability of the virus to last that long is unproven, he said.
"The story is more about affordable homes rather than where they are manufactured," he said.
Neilston has a multiproof consent from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Housing, meaning it can fast-track planning consents for its new homes. The consents are for builders and developers who plan to replicate the same or similar standardised building design many times.
A national multiple-use approval is a statement from the ministry that a set of plans and specifications complies with the Building Code.
"Multiproofs are beneficial for builders and companies who build standardised designs," the ministry said.
Houston said getting the multiproof approval was not as quick as he had hoped: "The multi proof consent is supposed to take eight weeks but took twice as long."
Prefabrication businesses have failed in New Zealand and Houston acknowledged that, but said that was because those failed businesses had tried to make the houses in this country.
The secret to his success, he indicated, was having them built in China.
Four years ago, staff at ABT (Adaptive Building Technology) Construction's factory at 217 Archers Rd in the Wairau Park/Glenfield area were filmed assembling a highly sophisticated three-level home within four to six weeks when it takes others many months. By 10 to 12 weeks, all works are finished. The company was liquidated just a year later with claims from Bunnings, Steel & Tube and Carter Holt. One preferential creditor alone claimed $3.1m.
In 2015, off-site housing manufacturer eHomes went into liquidation and receivership and many of its assets were sold to its Auckland landlord. Unsecured creditors were owed $5.1m with little hope of getting paid and a long creditors' list has been released, spanning many different sectors.
In 2018, prefabricated home-building company Matrix Homes also went into receivership and liquidation with debts of more than $2m. Sean Murrie, chief executive and a director of the previously Trentham-headquartered business, cited lack of orders and slow planning regime change. The latest liquidators' report showed creditor claims of $2.7m.
Two years ago, two new Auckland houses were being built in the ex-Alloy Yachts west Auckland factory. Made on-site, the houses were ready to be put on trucks and transported to Waiheke Island via a car ferry and barge. Dan Heyworth, chief executive of The Workshop Company, sees this as the future of the building industry, he said two years ago.
But when the Herald asked Heyworth how the concept was going last year, he said: "The Workshop is on hold at the moment. I've been part of a small group trying to bring international technology and expertise into New Zealand to deliver off-site manufacturing at scale."
Asked today about The Workshop, he said he had left the ex-Alloy premises: "We only built four or five houses but components for other houses. Prefab seems like a really good idea and why can't we do houses like cars? But they're two totally different products. Prefab requires scale, large standardisation and flow."
He lauded Houston's initiative but said it only took a pandemic and the manufacturing pipeline to be interrupted for two months to totally disrupt such a business model.
"He's a brave man," Heyworth said of Houston's new Neilston venture with Modul.