An Intelligent Alternative to Modular Construction

Click to view in E-Magazine | Click to view Brochure

-By Robert Hoshowsky

When it comes to constructing homes in remote areas of Queensland, the Northern Territories and Western Australia, finding skilled labour to do the job is often the biggest challenge. For years, typical “˜modular’ style construction – buildings made from slabs of reinforced concrete poured into moulds and transported flat to building sites – was popular, but it has its disadvantages. Along with being limited by the size of the mould used to create them, ordinary modular construction panels are extremely heavy, require crews on-site for assembly, and have a similar dull, uninspired “˜block’ look to them.

Fortunately, there is a practical, durable, cost-efficient, architecturally-designed and attractive alternative to cumbersome modular construction in Australia: Pods from Buildfirst Pty Ltd. Established in 2009, Buildfirst has rapidly developed into a leading manufacturer of Pods, prefabricated, modular spatial entities ideal for remote areas, motels, mining sites, and countless other applications. Well suited for kitchens, bathrooms, ensuites, laundries and more, Pods are constructed ahead of time, delivered to their locations as-is, and do not require the same costly and time-consuming manpower to set in place as old-fashioned modular constructions.

The Origin of Pods

The development of Pods goes back to Alan Emblin. Alongside his son Jonathon – who now serves as Director and Chief Executive Officer at Buildfirst – Alan works as Managing Director of the company, and has decades of construction experience under his belt. For many years, Alan headed his own family business, A.G. Emblin Pty Ltd, which was behind numerous construction projects in and around Queensland and remote areas for over 30 years. In the early 1980s, his company was building housing in the nation’s Aboriginal communities. In 1990, Emblin was behind the famous El Questro Homestead, a luxurious, landmark resort situated in Western Australia’s picturesque Kimberley landscape and ranked second in Australian Traveller’s top 10 luxury lodges in Australia for 2011.

In the early 2000’s, Emblin brought in a business partner and changed the name of his company to Ricon Contractors Pty Ltd, which was initially contracted to construct Ritek Building Systems, and later won the WA Master Builders Award for Building Excellence in 2009. Today, the unique and innovative Ritek system is used to erect a wide range of buildings in remote areas, along with additions to existing homes, motels, police stations, schools, government defense staff accommodations, and more.

The First Group comprises three entities – Arkifirst, Buildfirst, and Podfirst – with each providing customers with innovative construction techniques and technologies. Arkifirst is a Sunshine Coast based emerging design studio, while Buildfirst specialises in remote area construction across Australia and incorporates the unique Ritek Wall and Roofing Systems. Podfirst is committed to developing smarter, sustainable buildings that integrate the latest building technology to create affordable, modular buildings with endless design possibilities.

The Evolution of Ritek

“Alan was the builder in the company, the one with the building experience, and effectively invented Ritek panels,” says Buildfirst’s Jonathon Emblin. Developed and refined over the years, Ritek Building Solutions represent an innovative alternative to cumbersome modular concrete construction. The Ritek XL Wall and Ritek Roof systems are two cement sheet sandwich panels held apart by small elements of aluminium extrusion and plastic spacers, and are effectively hollow. The Ritek system has countless advantages over block modular construction.

“With traditional slab on ground, all panels are stood up, and placed together with reinforcing steel. Compared to block, it is much faster to put up,” says Emblin. “Traditional blocks are 200 mm wide, and need finishes; a standard Ritek panel is only 115 mm wide, and the cement sheet is a finished surface comparable to plasterboard. It is much stronger, thinner, and provides up to five per cent more square meterage for the same gross floor area, and allows for extra space around walls.”

Unlike traditional modular constructions – which have to be erected on-site and require skilled trades – Pods constructed with the Ritek system are manufactured and finished at the company’s main facilities, and travel as a complete unit. Cost-competitive with lightweight steel and concrete structures, Pods built with the Ritek system can actually last decades longer, saving considerable costs in the long run. “We might be more expensive at the factory gate price, but as an installed on-site price, we come in cheaper than a traditional prefab,” says Emblin. “Steel and lightweight cladding structures have a 20 year lifespan; ours has a lifespan of 50 years or more.”

Design and Durability

In functionality, durability, and design, Pods made using the Ritek system stand head and shoulders above conventional block construction, which is limited by the size and design of the moulds used to create the panels. “Our system is very flexible, and we can literally make any architectural design people like,” says Emblin of the company’s Pods.

Starting from the ground up, Buildfirst Pods already come complete with a concrete slab floor with subfloor services, and require minimal site preparation; if necessary, Pods can be placed directly onto concrete piers for volatile soils. “It is a very simple on-site procedure,” comments Emblin. It is also this durable concrete floor and wall system – which also satisfies sound and fire ratings – that allows for the pods to be stacked on top of one another to create multi-level projects; if one pod is stacked atop another, the floor of the second pod becomes the ceiling of the ground floor unit.

When compared to timber and steel construction, the points of difference between Buildfirst Pods and conventional materials become even greater. Unlike wood, architecturally-designed, concrete-filled Ritek XL wall panels will not rust or rot or be eaten by termites or vermin, and do not require the same ongoing maintenance as wood or metal, thereby saving considerable costs over the lifespan of the Pod; the lifespan of Pods is at least two and a half times that of conventional steel frame structures. Pods are also cyclone rated safety shelters, which makes them extremely suitable for Australia’s often drastic changes in weather.

Ease of Transportation and Construction

Since all finishing of Ritek panels is done at the company’s factory, Pods travel as a finished unit – akin to a concrete box – unlike other modular constructions, which are transported in sections, and require costly and labour-intensive on-site assembly by skilled workers. “This is the most effective way to deliver accommodation to remote areas,” says Emblin of the Pods, which come with services for wiring and plumbing intact, essentially making them “˜plug and play.’ One Pod can not only be connected to another Pod, but they can be attached to existing structures – such as an older home – to serve as an extension or extra room, bathroom, laundry area, and more.

Buildfirst Pods are also kinder to the environment. Since they arrive on site as completed units, there is no excessive waste material generated. Interiors are also finished, and include bathroom, kitchen and laundry taps, carpeting, tile, cabinetry, and even shower screens. To further save on separate transport costs, Buildfirst is in discussions with a company that produces quality solid wood furniture, and is looking into transporting Pods to remote sites with tables and chairs and other items already inside to save on transport. “Why send a second truck just to get the furniture there, when you can just tie it down and send it in the pod?” asks Emblin.

Pods and their Uses

More attractive, more durable, and easier to install than old-fashioned constructions, Pods are also much more flexible because they are not limited in size. Popular for remote housing, Pods are also widely used for motels rooms, and can be made to practically any scale. “People are looking for a higher quality, more durable product, and we’ve managed to achieve that by using the Ritek system,” says Emblin. “We have completely flexible, architecturally-designed pods that can be made to any size and any shape subject to basic transport limitations. We get to provide the inherent efficiencies that come with a pre-fabricated system, but deliver the structural longevity and robustness of traditional masonry construction.”

Another way Pods outshine other methods of construction is ease of connection. Buildfirst recently constructed a four-bedroom house, the Muirhead Display Home & Office, in Darwin for Defence Housing Australia. All wet areas – kitchen, bathroom and laundry – were supplied as a prefab pod. “That delivers 100 per cent of the internal plumbing requirements, and 70 to 80 per cent of electrical requirements,” says Emblin of the house, which also came with cabinetry in those areas. Since each pod has its own circuit board, it can easily be wired into the rest of house, and plumbing services are connected beneath each Pod. This makes Pods idea for total accommodation, such as motel or worker accommodation, and integrated Pods.

Speed and Portability

Since Pods arrive as completely “˜finished’ units and require minimal preparation on-site, they save customers considerable cost and money. From a construction perspective, the Ritek panel technology offers countless other advantages. “Because the Ritek panel is a 100 per cent in situ reinforced concrete, it is thinner, stronger, and it is inherently more robust than a comparable block product, but you also have those high-quality finished surfaces inside and out,” says Emblin. “The technology is there for us to do something that wasn’t possible before.” Since the Pods arrive on-site finished, they are not affected by slowdowns due to the country’s rainy season, which can bring other construction industries to a standstill.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of Buildfirst Pods is portability, today and into the future. Units can be moved, even years later, to another location. The same cannot be said for traditional block construction, which would quite literally fall to pieces. It is this, and many other advantages that ensure Pod structures will become more and more popular across Australia in the years to come.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

May 29, 2020, 4:38 PM AEST