24/09/2008 - 22:00

Cultural shift a materials matter

24/09/2008 - 22:00

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SUSTAINABILITY and affordability are beginning to drive innovation in the use of building materials in Western Australia's housing industry, with more developers using imported and lightweight products.

Cultural shift a materials matter

SUSTAINABILITY and affordability are beginning to drive innovation in the use of building materials in Western Australia's housing industry, with more developers using imported and lightweight products.

According to Mirvac WA chief executive, Evan Campbell, the industry will increasingly move away from traditional brick-and-tile housing in future years.

"I think that's going to be one of the biggest mindset changes, or one of the biggest innovative changes we'll see in WA over the next 100 years. I think we've got to change the mindset of full brick [housing]," Mr Campbell said.

Some developers say that transition has already begun, with imported products, particularly finishings, becoming more widely used in WA.

"We're finding a lot of product from China that's now working its way into the local market, so that's going to put pressure on material costs," Ibex Capital director Charlie Robertson said.

He said companies were developing supply chains into China, dealing directly with local businesses to import kitchens, windows, finishing products, tiles and carpets.

And while there may have been resistance to using imported or lightweight products in the past, Match managing director Lloyd Clark believes that is changing.

"A lot of projects now are [accepting the] use of pre-cast panels, AFS walling panels, pre-cast flooring systems, and lightweight internal walls. Certainly there is wider market acceptance for that, because developers have been forced in that direction in order to build," he said.

"There's no doubt that over the last four or five years, with the rapidly escalating cost of building, it's actually forced a lot of developers to look at more innovative ways of building, which is unique to WA, being a very traditional building market."

Strong growth in the modular housing sector is one indication that the industry is willing to trial new building systems, at least in rural or remote locations where traditional construction is expensive.

A recent survey by WA Business News found almost 20 WA companies offering modular or transportable housing products, many imported from New Zealand or China.

The previous state government also pushed for more innovation in the building sector, with the Department of Housing and Works commissioning a series of display homes using passive solar design, grey water and roof water reuse.

But there are a number of barriers to introducing new building materials to WA.

Under the Building Code of Australia, products must be demonstrated to be sustainable and components tested for structural soundness, like fire resistance.

However, there's a bigger obstacle in convincing the building industry and homebuyers of the merit of new materials, according to Master Builders Association WA housing director, Gavan Forster.

"I think there are a lot of barriers to [using new materials] on the customer side. The culture of the industry is brick and tile and I haven't seen any evidence of the cost savings [of new products]. There's a lack of training on how to use them, or an unwillingness to do so," Mr Forster said.

"There's also the resale issue and maintenance - how long will they last, and how popular will they be?"

MBA executive director Michael McLean said changing demographics, rather than sustainability or the cost of materials, would influence the type of construction used in WA.

"Statistics show 32 per cent of households are now lone-person households, and 36 per cent of couples are living together without children, so I think that will have a bearing on the type of house built," he said.

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