Constructing a building in the middle of the desert is no easy feat – Kyle Michel can vouch for that.
In Afghanistan, where Michel has had spells working as a consultant for New Zealand steel framing business Framecad, a sandstorm can strike at any moment.
“You’ve got maybe two or three minutes before it hits,” he says. “You can see it coming and it’s coming at 200 or 300 kilometres per hour. You don’t want to be out there with a machine sitting in the open, so to be able to close the doors on a container within a minute is great.”
The container Michel is referring to is Framecad’s mobile factory, or ‘factory in a can’. Within an average-sized shipping container, Framecad fits absolutely everything needed to construct the skeleton of a house, accommodation block or other structure. From its factory in the heart of Auckland suburb St Johns, these mobile factories are being sent to remote locations all over the world.
In Western Australia, mobile factories have been deployed to small indigenous townships. Three days’ drive from Perth lies Fitzroy Crossing, where extensive flooding from the nearby river is just a normal part of the wet season. Michel says timber framing doesn’t bode to well in this part of the world.
“If you’ve got nice, dry framing sitting in your wall and you’re needing to make a fire to cook on, you’re going to steal the wood out of the wall because everything is wet, because you’re under two metres of water.”
That’s where steel framing comes in. Chief executive Mark Taylor founded Framecad 25 years ago and now it’s doing business in all corners of the globe. You’d be forgiven for never having heard of it, though. Taylor says the company is probably better known in the Middle East than it is in Auckland.
Although it has its fingers in many construction pies, Taylor says Framecad has a growing focus on mobile factories because it is a high-growth, high-reward part of the market.
“One of the big things around that is a lot of the places we go are logistically very difficult. So you imagine the challenge of shipping in a truckload of timber versus shipping in one coil.”
Once a building has been designed on Framecad’s very own software, steel from a 1.5 tonne coil is fed through a fabricating machine, both of which can be found in the container. The four-metre-long, $250,000 machine progressively bends and punches holes in a sheet of steel until it becomes a frame fit for construction. Steel frames are churned out at 700 metres per hour, allowing building to begin as soon as the groundworks have been completed. A self-contained diesel generator, internal gantry and full tool-kit are among the other treasures to be found in the can.
In countries with extreme weather, such as Afghanistan – where sandstorms in the summer are followed by bitterly cold winters marred by heavy dumps of snow – erecting frames can be a very difficult process. But unlike timber, steel frames fit together seamlessly like pieces of Lego.
For this reason, low- to medium-skilled labourers can help construct a building, significantly reducing costs.
Taylor says mobile factories are becoming increasingly popular not only for their comparative cost savings, but also because of the effect they have on people living in low socio-economic areas. Because high-skilled labour isn’t necessary, mobile factories give locals the opportunity to help build their own homes, schools and hospitals.
“It simplifies the logistics of getting things done in these remote locations because you actually empower local communities by taking a mobile factory to the project.”
Along with building for local communities, Framecad has been contracted to build accommodation for various international militaries. Military personnel, many of whom had been living in shipping containers themselves, would have hardly been over the moon when they saw more containers arriving on the horizon.
Luckily for them, these containers held the answer to their housing woes. They didn’t have to wait long to move in either – after concrete has been laid for the foundation, a 200-room accommodation block takes just six weeks to build.
Despite New Zealand’s traditional use of timber, more people and organisations are turning to steel framing. Framecad’s frames have passed resistancy tests in earthquakes up to magnitude nine on the Richter scale, making it a popular choice for the Christchurch rebuild. Taylor says they are helping stop the brain drain too, through giving Kiwis like Michel the opportunity to work overseas while still being employed by a New Zealand company.
Don’t be fooled into thinking steel can only be used for the framing of a building. Framecad is using all the goodies in the can to produce furniture ranging from beds and desks to chairs and shelving. Logos and signage for companies are another frequent request, showing this steel framing business is incredibly flexible. Michel says the company lives by one simple motto: “If you can think of it, go build it.”