Artist’s rendering of a prefabricated micro-unit apartment building planned for New York City (NYC Mayor’s Office)

How Singapore plans to push its construction industry into the 21st Century

14 October 2014 | By Rod Sweet 2 Comments

Singapore is already one of the most competitive places in the world, but the city state now wants to push its building industry into the 21st Century by pressuring it to adopt modular construction techniques and ramping up the productivity of its workforce.

The government used the launch of “Singapore Construction Productivity Week” yesterday to announce a raft of new measures, including requiring developments on government land to use modular construction techniques, ploughing millions extra in cash for a dedicated productivity fund, and laying on courses with help from Stanford University to bring the bosses of developers, consultants and contractors alike up to speed in the latest approaches to “virtual design and construction” (VDC).

Officials, including Singapore’s second minister for environment, water and foreign affairs, Mrs. Grace Fu, heaped praise on what may be the world’s biggest project to use modular construction, a 10-tower luxury condominium scheme by developers City Developments Limited (CDL), to be built on Singapore’s Canberra Drive.

“We have plucked the low-hanging fruits and the next step requires a bigger change in terms of our mindset and the way we work”– Dr John Keung, CEO of Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA)

Modular construction – also known as design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA), or prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC) – involves assembling building components, including whole rooms, in factories and craning them into position on site. The approach is widely believed to be faster, safer, and to provide more predictable quality.

CDL says the 636 “executive condos” in their 12-storey towers will be built using 3,300 building modules, saving some 55,000 man days compared to conventional construction methods – a productivity increase of 40%.

Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said it is also working on its second Construction Productivity Roadmap to bring the sector’s productivity to the next level. Details will be released next year.

“We have plucked the low-hanging fruits and the next step requires a bigger change in terms of our mindset and the way we work,” said Dr John Keung, CEO of BCA.

Modular construction is being adopted on a limited scale in three other projects in Singapore, including CDL’s Green Gallery at Singapore Botanic Gardens, a student hostel at Nanyang Technological University, and an extension to the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport Hotel, but the BCA says that its Canberra Drive scheme is likely to be the largest application of volumetric modular building (PPVC) in the world.

Despite its reputed benefits, modular construction remains niche in most developed markets largely because of inertia – the business models of developers and building contractors still assume traditional methods, with skilled trades and labourers toiling on a construction site. (New York’s plan for a new breed of “micro-apartments”, pictured, captured attention in part for their modular construction.) To accelerate demand for PPVC Singapore will deploy some carrots and a stick. 

First, the stick: periodically the government sells parcels of land for development, so certain sites released for sale later this year (they’re called Government Land Sales) will be sold on the condition that the developer uses modular or prefabricated techniques on whatever it builds. With land so scarce and valuable in Singapore, this will be a powerful incentive for those at the top of the construction power structure – clients.

The carrots will be cash, logistical support, and training. 

The BCA said an extra SG$55m (US$43m) will be injected into the Construction Productivity and Capability Fund, which helps firms adopt new technology and develop their workforces. That brings the total amount of productivity funding set aside for the construction sector to SG$335m.

For logistical support, to build native off-site manufacturing capacity, the BCA will launch two more “integrated construction and precast hubs” (ICPHs) this year. Unique to Singapore, the ICPH is a highly-automated, multi-storey factory for producing precast concrete building elements such as staircases, plus volumetric modules such as bathrooms. The BCA awarded a tender for Singapore’s first ICPH, a compact, five-storey, 32,600-sq-m factory at Kaki Bukit in July last year, and it wants more of them so the industry can’t say it lacks the physical means to start building modularly.

Finally, the BCA will roll out new courses to upgrade Singapore’s workforce. They include a five-month Specialist Diploma in Construction Productivity programme and a two-month Advanced Certificate in Construction Productivity, to start early next year.

The BCA Academy will also team up with Stanford University’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE), to offer advanced management training for CEOs and senior and middle managers at property firms, consultancies and building contractors. The programmes will aim to help senior people come to grips with virtual design and construction, building information modelling (BIM), and with an integrated approach to the design, construction and operation of built assets.

Singapore’s unique effort to modernise its construction industry fits into a broader national strategy of moving resolutely up the global economic food chain. After independence in 1965 its Asian Tiger status was based on cheap manufacturing, but it is now grounded in high-value services. Even though unemployment in this nation of 5.4 million stood at a mere 2% in the first quarter of this year, it is committed to clamping down on foreign labour and upskilling its already high-achieving populace.

Modernising construction is a tough nut to crack. For various reasons, despite long-running improvement agendas in most of the world’s most developed markets, construction remains a wasteful, tradition-bound industry plagued by delays, cost overruns and contractual disputes. Singapore’s determined, state-led approach may set an example, but whether anyone will be able to follow it is another question.

Photograph: Artist’s rendering of a prefabricated micro-unit apartment building planned for New York City (NYC Mayor’s Office)