No building is complete without a façade, which makes the procurement process crucial in terms of project delivery timeframes. As COVID-19 disrupts supply chains for offshore products, we asked some experts whether using all-Australian made façade products can help reduce the risks.
Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews recently told the National Press Club that COVID-19 has revealed the weaknesses in supply chains that rely on imported products.
Value, rather than cost, is where Australian manufacturers can compete effectively, she said. Procurement is the key, and state and federal governments are already moving in this direction, looking to local suppliers for many publicly funded projects.
But Can It Be Done?
According to Managing Director of structural and façade consultancy Hera Engineering Matteo Tirapelle, it is possible to source all the elements of a façade from within Australia. However, it could lead to increased costs for some projects.
Generally, he said, a façade accounts for around 30 per cent of the total construction cost for a major project, so keeping those costs low is a priority. Glazed curtain wall systems, such as those constructed with integrated glazing units (IGUs), are generally sourced from China due to lower labour costs.
There are, however, other costs associated with offshore procurement, such as delays. These are often not factored into the initial balance sheet.
“It is a real problem if the façade does not arrive on time,” Tirapelle said.
While it would be wise to think about procurement matters early in design stages, Tirapelle said the contractors often are not brought onto the project team until tender phase. That means façade procurement is discussed late in the process after key architectural decisions have already been made.
Builders also may not have much leeway to change the type of façade or its costings in any substantial way, if they are granted the contract after the initial design has already been decided by the client and the architect.
Getting the Glazing
Glazed curtain walls are a common feature for commercial office towers to ensure natural light reaches into the centre of an office floorplate. It is “really not complex” to procure a glazed façade locally, Tirapelle explained, as double-glazing and aluminium framing are both made in Australia.
The Australian Glass and Window Association confirmed this, noting its members include Australian manufacturers of energy-efficient and custom glazing systems for façades, such as Capral, ALSPEC, AWS and G. James.
Tirapelle suggests new performance requirements for buildings in terms of energy efficiency and thermal performance could mean the glazed box needs a re-think. Without adding shading devices, a fully-glazed façade requires the building HVAC systems to mitigate an increased heat load.
For projects like lower rise commercial buildings and apartment towers, there are a number of cost-effective, locally-produced materials. Precast concrete, for example, is generally sourced from local suppliers for apartment projects, rather than brought in from offshore.
“This is a very economical way to build an apartment building,” Tirapelle said.
This solution is also beneficial when it comes to fire resistance, wind resistance and waterproofing. Various types of solid cladding panels and engineered timbers are also made on-shore and can frequently be used for stick-built approaches.
While engineered timbers, such as glulam, LVL and CLT, are gaining popularity, Tirapelle said they are generally not exposed on the façade above podium level due to the potential effects of weather. Instead, timber is used as structure and exposed internally, with a glazed curtain wall put in place to shield the timber from the elements.
Tirapelle also noted variations in standards may lead to quite significant quality risks and legal risks when deciding on offshore procurement. There have been high profile projects that have found asbestos contamination in products, for example, at levels that are legal and acceptable in the country of origin but unacceptable in Australia.
“When you buy things from overseas, you don’t really know how they are built,” he added.
Challenges with Offshore Sourcing
Innovative and unconventional architectural designs may also cause potential problems with offshore sourcing. It depends on the ability of manufacturers to create and freight façade panels for creative buildings, such as the spherical Geelong Library project.
The library façade features panels of Glass Reinforced Concrete designed, engineered and precast in Adelaide by Asurco Contracting. Des Pawelski, Asurco’s owner, says the company’s end-to-end capabilities have several benefits.
The architect and engineer do not need to provide the detail design of the panels as his company uses 3D modelling and its own engineers to detail the panel geometry, joints and fixings to the structure.
Where a project has non-conventional geometry like the library, or Asurco’s other projects which include Wynyard Walk at Barangaroo or the concourses of underground train stations in Sydney or Melbourne, containerising the panels efficiently for shipping would prove extremely difficult for an offshore manufacturer.
“GRC is not modular—every panel is often different,” Pawelski said.
Even if panels are containerised, they may not be shipped in the order they are required for installation on-site. That would result in the customer needing to pay for additional warehousing space and handling equipment for laydown, sorting and storage, as well as additional freight for delivery to site.
A specialist subcontractor is also generally needed for erecting and fixing offshore-sourced panels—and if anything does not fit the way it should, there’s no quick solution to getting a new panel from the manufacturer.
Making the Switch — Because Time is Money
Many builders have got in touch with Australian façade panel manufacturer Vitra Group because of the recent concerns around time-related risks associated with offshore supply, the company’s Sales Manager Phil Marshall said.
He mentioned a significant increase in inquiries, including builders who are considering varying their project.
While generally, builders would be looking to swap products to achieve a cost-saving, they are now concerned with time, Marshall explained.
An offshore façade panel supplier may mean a 12-week to 18-week turnaround from specification to delivery into Australia, Marshall said. The shifting situation with shipping due to COVID-19 also means there are genuine risks of timelines extending and causing project delays.
Vitra Group, on the other hand, can deliver a panel within 14 days, including the time taken to consult on colour tones and finalise the specifications.
The panels combine fibre-reinforced cement sourced from Brisbane-based manufacturer, James Hardie, with detailing, painting and final finishing performed by Vitra at either its Sydney or Brisbane plants.
“The other advantage of local manufacture is if damage occurs to a panel once it is on-site, we can turn around a replacement in just a couple of days,” Marshall said. “It won’t be holding the project up. Also, being local, variations are not an issue [in terms of time].”