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Teambuild secures first-mover status in pre-fab building

Teambuild executive director Johnny Lim said the company went into pre-fab building early on after finding out that doing so could save lots of time. It hedged its risks back then by starting on a smaller scale.


BEING a technology pioneer can come with an unexpected cost: Curious visitors.

Teambuild Construction is one of the earliest adopters of prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC) technology in Singapore, a building method that involves making modules and completing finishes in factories before assembling them on-site.

Singapore government agency officials, delegates from Hong Kong and Malaysia, and even competitors, have been visiting its construction sites to study how they work with PPVC.

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Every visit is a disruption, but at least the technology is efficient enough to take the hit.

"With any visit to our site, we have to stop work because the crane is not supposed to operate. Even with that, we still finish the project on time," Teambuild executive director Johnny Lim said with a laugh.

That level of confidence was not always there. But persevering through the risks and pains of being a first mover to establish an early track record was the key that opened more doors, Mr Lim said.

"Anybody trying a technology for the first time generally goes through a learning curve, and likewise when Teambuild went into it, we didn't have prior experience because nobody had done it before in Singapore," Mr Lim told The Business Times in a recent interview.

It was not so much a matter of learning from mistakes, as it was learning to foresee potential problems and finding ways to overcome them.

"There are bound to be certain pockets (of issues) which you have to experience to understand the problem," he said, using an example of construction workers hoisting a module only to find that the alignment was slightly off.

"The next time you do it, you might want to think of using some form of locators to guide the module more accurately into place for instance," he said.

The Singapore construction firm started its PPVC journey in 2013 with the project Rivervale Delta in Sengkang.

That project did not use PPVC in its construction, but the company used it as a case study, modelling it in 3D digitally and simulating the process to see how much time it could have saved with PPVC instead of the conventional method.

The answer: nine months.

Convinced that this was a viable method, it started looking for the right project to tender for. About a year later, it won the tender as main contractor for West Terra in Bukit Batok, a housing development project consisting of nine 18-storey blocks making up close to 1,800 units.

The company decided to hedge some risks by using PPVC only on three out of the nine blocks. "We decided not to be too ambitious. The three blocks we chose were blocks with smaller units like two- and three-bedroom, so the modules were smaller and more manageable."

The second reason for the decision was cost. "The contractor has to put in a cost for the whole development. Because PPVC is a costlier method of construction, if we used it for all nine blocks, we probably wouldn't have won the project because our cost wouldn't have been competitive."

Mr Lim said that back in 2014, PPVC technology cost 15 to 20 per cent more than the conventional way of building because of the costs of transportation and lifting equipment such as tower cranes.

Tower cranes in the market at that time could hoist up to only 10 tonnes, but PPVC modules can weigh about 25 tonnes each. The company had to custom-make a tower crane that could lift 40-tonne modules. Today, with increased adoption of PPVC technology, suitable tower cranes with 20- to 30-tonne carrying capacities are available locally.

Following the HDB project, Teambuild also completed Singapore's first concrete PPVC private residential project, The Brownstone executive condominium, for City Developments.

In its pilot HDB project, it managed to increase productivity by 26 per cent - measured by manpower and time savings. For The Brownstone, it boosted productivity by 40 per cent.

After that, the projects came in swiftly. The group now has a pipeline of four new projects, all requiring PPVC: Valley Spring at Yishun; Parc Riveria at West Coast Vale; Parc Botannia at Fernvale; and Fernvale Glades at Sengkang.

"I think the industry has gained a certain level of confidence. When we were pioneering this, the industry had a lot of rumours saying that we were bound to fail big time. We persevered in the first two projects; we learnt whatever we needed and we improved our system to make it easier to construct and more productive to build.

"Because we had so much faith in what we were doing, we made a bid for a piece of land to build an integrated construction precast hub to manufacture prefabricated construction elements for our projects."

Through the pioneering process, government funding also helped, Mr Lim said.

The government co-funds up to 70 per cent of the cost difference between the conventional and the PPVC way of construction.

If a particular site does not require use of PPVC and a developer voluntarily decides to adopt it anyway, it can also approach the Building & Construction Authority for funding. This benefit will also trickle down to the contractor in the form of a higher contract sum.