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Case study: IPanels rebuilding Christchurch

Case study: IPanels rebuilding Christchurch
Inspired by Henry Ford, Reginald Richards’ new construction system IPanels might hold the key to rebuilding Christchurch and meeting global demand for quality, cost-effective housing.
Father and son team Brendan and Reginald Richards

The Canterbury earthquakes have brought into sharp focus how fragile some of our buildings are, and the cost to rebuild will strain our already weakened economy.

But Reginald Richards from RCP Holdings Limited has a simple and economical solution to rebuilding Christchurch. A Master Builder with a long experience in design and construction, he’s created an innovative modular building system called IPanels. His lightweight refinement of the concrete tilt slab allows an average house to be assembled in just two days. What’s more, the panels are environmentally friendly, remove weathertightness and fire issues, have good thermal characteristics, and initial prototypes have resisted earthquake damage. 

“Before the September earthquake, we erected a prototype building in Christchurch and it’s come through the quakes unscathed, which proves the system’s strength and resilience,” says Richards.

“It’s compatible with all existing forms of construction and complies with building regulations, so it’s a great solution for rebuilding Christchurch.”

This is largely due to the panels stress-handling capabilities. Steel framing is embedded in the prefabricated 600mm-wide panels, which can be combined to create walls of any size and configuration. The concrete handles the stress in compression and the structural framing handles it in tension.

Having worked on his concept for the past four years, urged on by his son Brendan, Richards approached patent attorneys AJ Park to help protect the idea. Mike Biagio has helped RCP Holdings file a provisional patent application and an international (PCT) patent application for the system, with a view to obtaining patent protection overseas in time.

“We’ve protected every component,” says Biagio. “There is a lot of prior art on wall prefabrication, but none has the features that give all the benefits and advantages of this system. You can load it off the truck and bolt it straight into position.”

Richards believes there is a good market for the IPanel system in earthquake-prone countries, Pacific nations requiring low-cost, easy-to-erect housing, and countries such as South Africa where concrete construction is favoured.

“We’ve already had inquiries from the Pacific Islands and hits on our website from China and America,” says Richards.

A New Zealand firm is also interested in obtaining the licensed technology rights to mass-produce the panels here. RCP Holdings is about to build an architecturally designed demonstration house in Christchurch and has got council acceptance.

“I believe I’ve made a breakthrough in construction that hasn’t been seen since the introduction of the hollow concrete block in the 1950s,” says Richards. “Nobody’s tried to do it before. Concrete tilt slabs all have to be individually designed and engineered, but this system has only two panel types and they go together, a bit like Lego. It’s easily mass produced, too – I took a lot from Henry Ford. I’m familiar with car-assembly techniques so I applied a lot of that to this system.”

His solution might be simple but the journey to get there has been anything but. Richards has had to battle the sceptics, ill health, limited resources and a lack of funding to see his idea become a reality.

Early encouragement and investment from his son helped enormously, as did advice from an engineer friend. He’s now formed a team with DD Architects and builder Peter McGuire, who recognise the potential for IPanel, and has recently refined the system’s framing component to use more versatile glass-fibre composite as well as steel.

“We’ve done it all on a shoestring, but Mike Biagio understood what we were trying to do – that it was a system, not just individual panels.

That was important. Mike’s been very supportive.

"I haven’t been that easy to work with because I keep throwing different ideas at him. There were nine types of panels to begin with and now we’ve got it down to two.”