THE PANDEMIC PRESENTS an opportunity for structural improvements to the economy. In the construction sector, the time is indeed ripe for an evolutionary step to be taken through the adoption of the Industrialised Building System (IBS).
The construction industry is currently saddled with three chronic problems: the practice of in situ construction that is manual, that relies on low-technology, and that is heavily reliant on weather conditions. The resulting works are often riddled with defects. Secondly, the construction period is drawn out for over two years for landed properties, and three years for non-landed ones; the long completion period of a construction site is legislated in the Housing Development (Control and Licensing) Act 1966, in Schedules G (landed properties) and H (non-landed properties) specifically. The third issue centres on Malaysia’s excessive reliance on foreign workers. These cumulative problems are structural in essence.
However, there are no incentives for the adoption of faster and more efficient construction techniques. Locals shun the sector because the labour-intensive, low-technology construction methods being used involve long hours of toiling under the sun, and is physically demanding, not to mention dangerous. The work is low-skilled and of low-value, and so the remuneration is not very attractive. Under such circumstances, foreign workers are relied upon and consumers have to put up with long construction periods and with products of questionable quality.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed three salient observations about this sector. Firstly, construction technology has made significant progress, e.g. China was able to build the emergency Huoshenshan Hospital to treat Coronavirus patients in just 10 days. Secondly, our reliance on migrant workers poses health, social and security risks. Thirdly, the post-pandemic economic downturn will necessitate efforts to create quality job opportunities for locals. These observations, along with the challenges faced by the current construction sector, can be addressed with the adoption of IBS.
IBS refers to the technique of manufacturing building components in a factory, and then assembling them on site. The technology is readily available, and has been adopted by advanced countries like China, Japan and Singapore. Recent advancements in 3D printing technology have made it even more competitive and customisable.
Manufacturing building components in a factory ensures quality control, economies of scale, higher levels of customisation and freedom from the vagaries of weather conditions. Work at the construction site is limited to assembling the completed building components. The timeframe required to complete a construction will be dramatically reduced, as will time spent at the construction site under the sweltering sun. The quality of work will be consistent and of significantly higher quality. In other words, consumers will benefit from better product quality and a shorter waiting period.
Equally important are the job opportunities to be created at factories and at construction sites through the use of IBS. Manufacturing and the assembly of building components are both high-skilled and value-added work. They require a considerable amount of literacy and training which can be supplied by local talents and the remuneration will be more enticing. Following the implementation of IBS, foreign workers and their accompanying health, social and security risks can be phased out.
However, the system’s wide adoption requires comprehensive structural adjustments. At present, consumers remain largely unaware of its benefits and are accepting of current construction practices. Construction firms cite cost as a major impediment towards its adoption.
A combined “push and pull” approach is thus proposed. Consumer demands need to be raised and facilitated. To this end, it is recommended that the Housing Development Act be amended to specify shorter completion periods for properties constructed using IBS; for example, a new “Schedule IBS” of only one year or less for properties constructed using the system. Consumers will then have a clear choice, and the demand for properties constructed through IBS will become more tangible. Consumer demand will incentivise its adoption as property developers compete to fulfil market needs. Concurrently, the import of foreign workers in the construction industry needs to be limited and incentives be provided for the employment and training of local talents.
A shift towards IBS requires proper planning and a strong political will. There will be resistance from entrenched interests, but the Covid-19 pandemic presents a valuable opportunity to implement these proposals and elevate our construction sector to that of advanced countries. The issues of consumer choice availability, shorter construction periods, better product quality, job opportunities for locals and excessive reliance on foreign workers will all be simultaneously addressed.