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The prefab pioneer

Mainboard-listed BBR Holdings (S) Ltd, an early adopter of PPVC technology, has supplied around 2,000 modules and is on track for 2,700 more


BBR Holdings (S) Ltd’s (BBR) trailblazing role in Singapore’s prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC) revolution began five years ago. 

Industry study trips took chief executive officer Andrew Tan to projects and factories in Australia and other countries, where he witnessed factory production lines building entire apartments from scratch.

“First you have raw materials coming in. Then you cut, bend and weld the steel sections and sheets accordingly to build up a three-dimensional shell. Next, the walls, floorboards are put up along with
windows, electrical wirings, services pipes, internal finishes, fixtures and fittings. After the last coat of paint is applied, the module is wrapped for protection and moved off to the project site to be
installed,” Mr Tan said.

“Everybody was intrigued and impressed by the innovative construction concept and felt that this was the way to go forward.”

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The term PPVC describes a method of pre-fabricating modular units in a factory before they are transported to the construction site, as opposed to the conventional method of building at the location itself.

This technology is strongly supported by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and government authorities. It can reduce manpower requirements, especially Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers, while minimising dust and noise pollution, and improving productivity and site safety.

BBR, a construction and engineering group established in Singapore in 1993 and part of the global Swiss-based BBR network, decided to take the plunge. It wanted to embrace innovative
engineering and ride on the back of potential growth for more green buildings.

“We saw a new market evolving, so we made the commitment to adopt the new technology,” Mr Tan said.

In 2014, BBR worked with a partner in Shanghai who has been undertaking PPVC works for markets like Canada and Australia. 

Soon after, BBR clinched a contract to build Singapore’s first public high-rise development using PPVC technology. The project comprised six blocks of 13-storey student hostels at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), with a total of 1,213 PPVC modules.

With its track record, BBR secured a second PPVC contract in 2015 of 717 PPVC modules for another NTU hostel project. 

This was followed by a third project supplying 756 PPVC modules to The Wisteria & Wisteria Mall, a private mixed-development project in Yishun, where BBR is one of the consortium developers.

The Wisteria, which is 99 per cent sold, is one of the first residential developments under the Government Land Sales programme to adopt PPVC technology and prefabricated bathroom units.

A fourth PPVC project was secured in 2016 for 1,900 modular units for four blocks of staff housing facilities at Upper Aljunied Road. The same year, BBR set up a factory in Johore and Singapore to perform fitting-out works.

“Because we were one of the earliest adopters of PPVC, we have a track record that enables us to secure contracts,” Mr Tan said.

Lessons for all

BBR is one of the first four companies awarded In-Principle Acceptance Certificates for its PPVC design system by seven Singapore government agencies for use in local projects, through the Building nnovation Panel. It is also the first company to use PPVC on a public project. As such, it had to undergo a steep learning curve.

For example, there were restrictions to be worked around on the size of modular units allowed on the roads, on where trailers can be parked, and on the lifting capacity of cranes.

“These were not only learning points for us, but also for the relevant government agencies as well. Certain regulations had to be reviewed and adapted for the new technology. We are also appreciative of the support and co-operation by these agencies in advocating the adoption of PPVC,” Mr Tan said.

In order to succeed in the adoption of PPVC technology, a few things need to be in place, he said.

First, the long term market demand for PPVC has to be there. Second, all industry stakeholders need to believe and mindset that this technology will be worthwhile despite the higher costs.

BCA has organised several study trips to Europe, Australia and China. “You have to see what other people have done, what is achievable overseas, and bring back the good practices,” he said.

Third, a company’s organisational structure has to be changed to adopt the new technology. People have to be trained. And, finally, there are investments to be made in factories and equipment. 

“For PPVC to be used effectively, quality control at the factory is critical,” Mr Tan said.

“We do mock-ups, models, and identify clashes potentially affecting construction. Anything unsatisfactory has to be reworked.” 

Once the PPVC modules are installed on-site, final touch-up works are required but they are minimal compared to conventional methods of building, he said.

Computerised software such as building information modelling (BIM) and virtual design and construction (VDC) methods provide an advantage for PPVC construction. Design details as well as the construction process can be simulated and refined virtually before execution to reduce errors during construction.

Ultimately, the use of PPVC is accelerating in Singapore, Mr Tan said. Prefabricated, pre-finished modular units can be supplied to a wide range of developments such as schools, offices, hotels,
hostels, dormitories and nursing homes.

And BBR, with its track record of combining innovative engineering with specialist know-how, is well positioned for the years ahead.

“As a builder, we will participate in tenders for PPVC projects. And through our development arm, we will also tender for land sales where PPVC is required,” Mr Tan said.

“Our early investment in PPVC has reaped positive results and we are confident that it will be a new growth engine for us for many years to come.”