News analysis

No faster homes for now, but a future-proof industry

Singaporeans hoping that the new road map to transform the construction industry would lead to lower home prices or shorter construction periods may have to wait a while to reap those dividends.

Though observers say that home owners and buyers will eventually see some tangible benefits, the ambitious Industry Transformation Map (ITM) unveiled yesterday is focused first on ensuring the sustainability of the worst-performing sector in Singapore, which was forecast to grow just 0.3 per cent this year.

Part of a national economic restructuring strategy, the ITM hopes to boost productivity through the use of more digital technology and sophisticated pre-fabrication methods, among other things.

To that end, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) aims to attract another 50,000 people to new construction technology jobs by 2025, bringing the total to 80,000.

It is also emphasising Design for Manufacturing and Assembly principles, which often rely on off-site pre-fabrication methods . By 2020, the ITM targets to increase the adoption of such projects to 40 per cent, up from the current 10 per cent.

The digital push is meant to eliminate redundant jobs, ensure greater efficiency and lift the sluggish construction sector.

None of this will make much difference to the man on the street soon.

For starters, the new technologies are more costly than traditional methods, requiring huge capital investments for machinery and robotics, which are then passed down the supply chain.

Experts cite the cost premium for pre-fabrication technology over traditional construction methods as being around 8 per cent to 10 per cent currently.

But it is heartening that this has already fallen from about 10 per cent to 20 per cent five years ago.

And this is expected to come down further, as builders gain confidence in the technology over time, said BCA deputy chief executive of industry development Neo Choon Keong.

Another item on the wishlists of many is speedier construction time. But while it is true that technology will likely lead to some time savings, the BCA is not specifying any goals - for now.

That, however, may be a good thing as it gives companies with different roles - like contractor and consultant - time to adjust to the new digital demands.

Currently, firms use a host of planning methods, from 2D paper plans to 3D modelling software to plan buildings, said Nanyang Technological University engineering professor Robert Tiong.

"We will need time to get everyone speaking the same language, but the good news is that a wider adoption of pre-fabrication methods should help to save on construction time, and balance out the learning curve in the meantime," he said.

Looking at the next five to 10 years, industry players are optimistic that the changes will make costs come down and buildings go up faster.

Home buyers can also anticipate more reliable, better-quality buildings, as pre-fabricated units built off-site in sheltered conditions can be assembled and inspected more thoroughly.

But what is even more important about the ITM is that it promises that the industry is not driven to extinction.

Currently heavily reliant on foreign labour, the construction industry has long had trouble luring Singaporeans to take on jobs associated with dirt and toil.

But by keeping current foreign worker limits stable and encouraging new jobs at the same time, the authorities are nudging more young blood towards an elevated industry that now demands more technical know-how, and also offers a slightly more comfortable working environment.

As Singapore Contractors Association Limited president Kenneth Loo put it: "If you have a completely backwards industry that no one wants to join, nothing can ever be cheaper or faster. We are pumping in a bit more now, but that is to keep this industry alive and sustainable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'No faster homes for now, but a future-proof industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe