Integrating innovative thinking into a wood product business
Case Study – Taking a New Prefabricated Lightweight Timber Ground Floor System to Market
At the recent Wood Innovations conference held in Melbourne at the Bayview Hotel, Dr Alastair Woodard of TPC Solutions presented a case study: Taking a New Prefabricated Lightweight Timber Ground Floor System to Market.
When he opened his talk he was quick to point out that he speaks very fast, this was no exaggeration since he packed as much into his presentation as it would take another person two sessions to complete. Hence this is a long but informative representation of what he discussed.
Innovation and the norm.
As Dr Woodard said this case study is an excellent example of not just innovation but just as importantly industry collaboration.
“Innovation is the mechanism that allows businesses to change their products and services to adapt to the growth in the market place,” he said. “Innovation requires new ways of working, better collaboration and improved skills.
“I’d like to take you on a journey of investigation, exploration and change.”
He said that his journey started with a question: why were builders no longer constructing elevated timber sub-floors – particularly on sites where this option was simply far superior?
“We’ve always produced timber sub-floors … it was the first construction system until we lost out to concrete slabs,” he said.
According the Dr Woodard, Wood Products Victoria approached the market about three years ago to ask why builders continually use concrete slabs despite them not offering the right solution in every situation.
The feedback was really good, it was consistent but without any surprise. Wood Products found that the concrete slab is the norm and builders simply don’t consider or think about anything else.
“The building industry likes what the concrete slab offers, it’s really simple for them,” said Dr Woodard. “So if we want to compete with that we have to supply and install.”
Builders in Australia prefer slab-on-ground to suspended timber floor systems because;
Slabs represent over 95% of the new residential market in some states
Builders today are used to, and want – one contract to deliver a working platform, on a site, on a specific date, for a specific cost.
Builders have concerns with traditional built-on-site joist and bearer timber systems particularly because:
• Multiple trades and contracts are required
• There are longer construction periods compared with the slab-on-ground system.
So this is the challenge for the successful take-up of easy-toinstall, cost effective lightweight timber ground floor systems, which is what Dr Woodard’s case study centres on. The key issues to address include: Offering a total system that includes the prefabricated timber floor, the supporting system (with a number of options depending on site conditions) and a simple, effective and quick installation process
Developing an approach that has broad supply channel potential – an approach that does not require specialists to deliver, it must secure engagement and participation by the frame and truss sector to design/fabricate/install the system so that this provides a whole new value-added chain
A product line to manufacturers and a next step towards further prefabrication offerings (fully finished wall systems, fabricated roof modules etc). “It’s hard to get hard numbers, the FWPA is working on that, but anecdotally particularly in the eastern states about 95% of new residential constructions are on a slab,” said Dr Woodard. “The builders don’t really like how we build the timber floors they think there’s too many trades involved.
“Someone has to come and excavate strip footings, someone pours concrete, if it’s a brick veneer you’ve got to build the brick sub-wall then someone comes and does brick piers or stumps depending on what state you’re in, then lays floor joists, then we lay bearers, then we lay flooring – now we’ve got a flat surface.
“The concrete guys do that in one contract we’ve done it in multiple ones. They don’t like that, plus they think it takes a lot longer, we don’t think it does but that’s their perception.”
What builders want is one contract, and a working platform on a specific date for a specific cost – that was the clear message. If the timber industry wants to complete in that marketplace then what has to be on offer is an easy to install, cost effective floor system.
What came out of the research was that builders have to be offered a total floor system not just the panels, one that includes the piers and footings in the ground.
What’s the market?
What is happening currently is that concrete slabs are being used everywhere, even when they are the least appropriate construction method because it’s the norm.
Dr Woodard pointed to a house set against a massive hillside describing how ridiculous it was to build a concrete slab construction on this type of house block.
“You can’t believe that anyone thought this was good construction practice let alone the poor consumer who got this house,” he said. “Have a look at the back wall, the cut and fill, those retaining walls are the height of the second storey windows.
“The cost today of a house and land package is worth so much, half the cost of this land is worth nothing, you can’t do anything with that backyard. You can’t believe the council allowed them to do that, yet you see it all the time.”
So one area where a prefabricated cassette ground floor system would work is on sloping blocks, another he pointed out was in flood prone areas where the house can be raised. And yet another was building on reactive clays. “For those in Victoria the two greatest zones are to the south and to the west, which is all highly reactive clay,” he said.
“Waffle pod slabs have been introduced in the past 10 years. For those from Victoria they’ve been in drought for 15 years. So really the dirt they’ve been building on has seemed like rock but now that the moisture has come back that soil is moving all over the place. “So those waffle pods are flexing and they’re getting cracks. Cracks in walls, doors are jamming, there’s all sorts of problems for those people.
“This is something we would pitch against on a flat site and clearly on those reactive clays there’s real benefits in being able to come back and adjust the house into shape afterwards.”
How does it work?
A flat site is not a big market for this but there are opportunities, however, builders all loved the concept on a sloping site where you have adjustable steel piers.
“There’re a couple of those on the market Uni-Pier and Advanta-Pier,” said Dr Woodard.“They both operate on the same system.
“You can also get adjustable tops and we think they are going to be the critical ones for the reactive clays. They’re very simple to adjust.”
The concrete guys can’t do anything to make adjustments, added Dr Woodard.
He said that his aim was to keep to the KIS principle (Keep It Simple) so quite simple footing systems were employed such as concrete piers or conventional strip footings.
To test the system it was taken from the drawing board and run as a full sized house project with Bowens.
“We found them to be a really good partner because they do sub-floors already,” said Dr Woodard. “So we got good feedback. The house design was pretty simple.
“They were going to do it with stumps, which would have been about 45 times to ground, with our system and nine panels we only went 16 times to ground.
“This is on a reactive clay and the geotechnical engineer said those footings have to be at about two metres below the ground surface. It was quite a saving just in the foundation system.”
Installation happened in February 2013 in Heathcote north of Melbourne on reactive clay and a slightly sloping site.
“The most important thing is the initial set out since you have to get those piers in exactly the right place as if they are in the wrong place you don’t want to be hanging around with a panel on a crane.”
According to Dr Woodard, installing the stumps was very quick, maybe five minutes a stump, and they were leveled off using the simplest of items, a level. It all went really quickly.
“In this instance the truck was able to get close to the site and the crane on the back of the truck was used to lift the panels into place. From the first panel you can line up all the others.
“It all went very smoothly, probably half a day to do the piers and half a day to do the panels. That meant it was just one day to do the floors.
At the end of that project the team developed a technical advisory manual, which has been written for the frame and truss manufacturers that introduces the concepts of the system, and shows them how to select and optimise the appropriate system.
“There’s some good information on design, some information on fabrication and installation, and then the Heathcote case study.
“Normally with the FWPA project documents are made publicly available, in this instance we asked the FWPA to restrict the access … we didn’t want this out there so someone could have a go at it do it badly and wreck the whole system before we had chance to take it to market,” explained Dr Woodard. “We wanted a logical marketing implementation phase. That’s the stage we’re at, at the moment.”
The low hanging fruit
“A couple of years ago the frame and truss sector was really struggling, the market was down,” explained Dr Woodard.
“Too many of them, all undercutting jobs, no one was making bucks on it. They had about 98% of the roof frame market and 80% of the wall frame market that’s probably all they’ll get because out here we still like to stick build. There was no potential to move.
“So when we pointed out that they had none of the ground floor market they were pretty interested, that was the key - bringing them in and getting them involved.”
It was important to implement a strategy to manage the introduction of the system so that the industry could provide a high quality solution from the get go.
Activities have included the development of a detailed implementation program and related actions.
Stakeholder funding and support was sought while information seminars for frame and truss manufacturers were provided in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
From there innovative and high quality frame and truss
manufacturers were indentified nationally for participation in the program. A market implementation group (MIG) was convened with representatives from the three nailplate manufacturing companies – Pryda, Multinail and MiTek as well as frame and truss manufacturers – three from NSW, three from Queensland, one from Tasmanian and seven from Victorian.
“Certain priority generic activities need to be address including an assessment of the different State requirements for licensing, OH&S, crane usage and insurance.
“Alongside this it was important develop an independent business case and value proposition, and to be able to provide assistance with individual job designs. The nailplate manufacturers had to develop prefabricated floor design tools.
“Benefits had to be put before builders and consumers so that they were convinced of the advantages and a marketing and promotion package developed with the usual marketing tools such as a website, brochures, workshops etc.
“As we look to take this to market and we’re not doing that at the moment,” said Dr Woodard. “This is the market development and training phase with the industry to get their skills up.
“We won’t compete with the waffle pod slab on a stable site -- it’s just too cheap. What we’re focusing on is sloping sites, flood zones and reactive clays.
“To give you a feel for what that’s worth in Victoria for every 1% market share gained it’s worth $2.5 to $3 million a year in new timber sales that we don’t get at the moment. If you extrapolate that nationally for every 1% it’s probably $10m to $12 million.
“We want to capture that low hanging fruit initially. Then we reckon builders will pick it up on the flat sites.
“If you take this to a builder the first thing they say is how much is it going to cost per square metre compared with concrete? And it isn’t that comparison,” said Dr Woodard.
“We’ve done studies with builders to see the advantages from their perspective.
“The nailplate companies have started to develop design tools themselves. We need to give them time to do that and we’re about to move into a phase of marketing and promotions. “
The plan is to take it to the builders, specifiers and the broader frame and truss sectors.
The Pryda group has really embraced this and has a team called the instinct team, they’ve started upgrading software so you can design a cassette system onscreen. According to Dr Woodard they have some great simulations on their website.
In terms of frame and truss manufacturers this project has moved much quicker than was expected with two companies in Victoria having installed dedicated lines.
“What we always knew about taking this cassette floor to market is that it would be difficult to get the ground floors but it would easy to get the upper floors,” said Dr Woodard.
“What we said to the frame and truss guys was you’re building your skills, you can say for a second storey we can give you the upper floors as cassette floors.
“What this allows is the frame and truss guys to build the skills to produce these and demonstrate to the builder the advantages of a cassette build. That’s what’s happened.”
Doin’ it Drouin
A small company in Victoria, Drouin West Timber and Truss embraced the system and put it to work on its Corinella project and delivered a ‘dirt to lock in’, in under six days.
Pryda had been working with a company called SureFoot to market a non-concrete footing system; it doesn’t use any concrete in the ground it uses a steel plate and you drive a number of steel poles into the ground. Once they’re in place you can adjust them.
“What the Drouin and Heathcote projects prove more than anything is not simply that the system works but that the companies working with the system are innovating, and innovating fast. Taking the system seriously, investing in its future.
“This will mean a whole new product line for the frame and truss industry opening new doors for a wide range of timber products including sawn, LVL, i-beams, floor trusses, particleboard and plywood.
“They will be able to deliver high quality products because they will be manufactured in a controlled factory environment with reduced material waste. It won’t be just internal floors either, the concept is indoor-outdoor offering prefabricated timber decks and screens.
“There are opportunities too for additional value-add such as pre-ink-jetting wall frame positions, pre-cutting holes for plumbers, preinstalling plumbing pipes, fittings or shower bases, pre-fitting waterproof flooring and linings, and for upper storey cassette floors - pre-installing guardrails.