Western Australian builder Thermal Comfort Homes uses an innovative construction method to manufacture strong and well-insulated modular buildings that can be constructed in as little as nine weeks
Australia’s many and widely scattered resources projects mean that a considerable proportion of its working population is perpetually upping sticks for work. These miners, builders, engineers and others require quality, comfortable accommodation that fosters social harmony and reduces costly employee churn.
Thermal Comfort Homes (TCH) builds modular homes and multi-storey accommodation units that it claims provide “new levels of comfort and superior living environments” that support and influence the quality of a worker’s home and work life. Earle Lawrence, one of the company’s three directors, says the concept of a superior modular build came from his younger brother and fellow director Brett Lawrence.
“[Brett] had been building transportable and kit homes for a number of years and was looking to improve on the standard method of construction, as well as improving the sustainability of the houses,” Earle says.
“In 2008 Brett invited me – a building designer – and our structural engineer Andrew van der Meer to join him in setting up an innovative modular building company. It was named Thermal Comfort Homes to reflect the human feel that our homes provide.”
From the ground up
For the first six months Brett, Earle and Andrew ran TCH as a part-time enterprise as they waited for the client base to increase. “The company has grown in stages, from a borrowed yard with paint tins as chairs for the board meetings, through our first leased construction yard of 4,000m2 with our display home as our offices, to our new 8,300m2 premises with our TCH-constructed two-storey offices,” says Earle. “Our client base has diversified from home buyers, to corporates, to investors. It’s this growing investor market where time is money, and where we really shine.”
Modular housing has many advantages over traditional types of housing – especially when the location is remote from labour, supplies and other resources, making access expensive. “Having the building fully built, right down to the floor coverings and window treatments, in the construction yard and then transported to site greatly reduces the costs and construction time,” Earle explains. “The site component is reduced to site preparation prior to transport, and connection to services, power, water sewer, when the building arrives on site.” Quick and efficient methods of construction save both time and money, while minimising disruption to neighbours – which is important where a mine’s shift workers are concerned.
Some modular construction companies benefit from the cost savings of mass production, says Earle, but TCH is not one of them. Building a Thermal Comfort Home requires a great deal more care and technique. “We produce upmarket modular homes and upmarket modular motel accommodation units, with a high standard of finish and high-end specification,” Earle says.
Thermal Comfort Homes’ main advantage over comparable modular homes lies in the method and materials with which they are constructed. TCH uses a “unique” method of construction it calls ThermaStruct, which Earle claims not only turns the building into “an insulated cocoon” but also makes it robust enough to withstand cyclones and other elements of WA’s harsh environment.
“The system creates an external 80mm cavity between the cladding and the insulated sandwich panel,” he explains. “This allows a positive air flow between the external cladding and the insulated cocoon, with the warm air venting through the roof ridge. The addition of reflective insulation under the roof cladding repels heat back through the sheeting, preventing excessive heat gain in the roof space.”
The ThermaStruct system also works well on steep and difficult building sites, where Earle says the ThermaStruct floor “comes into its own”. TCH has several homes scheduled for steep site construction in 2013. Many modular systems dictate precisely where windows and doors can be located, but, according to Earle, ThermaStruct is highly adaptable so provides a great deal of design flexibility.
Another advantage of Thermal Comfort Homes is the heights they can reach. In TCH’s second year of operation, it seized the opportunity to build a two-storey resort in Onslow, northwest WA, and the three directors developed a structural design methodology for building multi-storey modular projects that demonstrate both lightness and strength.
“The initial design called for a heavyweight concrete floor to each level – something unheard of in modular design,” Earle says. “A bit of clever engineering and an experimental building later and the contract to build the first stage of 20 units was ours.
“The second stage of another 28 units called for a change in floor design when the developer installed a swimming pool, where the crane needed to be positioned to install the upper floors. We designed a lightweight concrete floor on a steel sub-frame and reduced the weight from 27 tonnes to 16 tonnes per unit. These buildings, including the first stage, sit on lightweight steel columns designed to withstand the severest of cyclones.”
TCH has continued to build two-storey projects and is currently building a two-storey motel accommodation development in Derby, approximately 1,800km north of Perth. As we speak to Earle, the first stage of 12 units has just arrived on site and TCH is preparing to crane the upper floors into position. Construction of the next two stages will follow in coming months.
Historically, modular homes were built to house workers in the resource sector. “Most modular construction is provided to the resource sector, which can be in boom or bust,” says Earle. “TCH has always had the attitude that if you are prepared to adapt your business model, rather than waiting for change to be forced upon you, then if the market wanes or booms you are prepared.”
Fortunately, as the current mining boom shows signs of winding down, Earle still sees plenty of opportunity for modular homes.
“While there remains a high demand for housing – whether it is a new or expanding remote-area town site or mine site accommodation – the opportunities for modular construction companies remain numerous,” he says. “With the change in attitude towards sustainability in housing and commercial buildings, modular has gained more interest from traditional construction consumers looking for faster build times; different, more efficient building materials; and energy savings.”
Earle anticipates that the adoption of modular housing will extend into suburban environments as well as more consumers gain awareness of the alternatives to traditional buildings and the advantages these can bring. “As the push for more sustainability and improved energy efficiency increases, lightweight buildings will become the outstanding performer, especially in warmer climates,” he adds.
The company’s next two projects, both in Onslow, will run simultaneously. These are a two-storey commercial office building and accommodation contract for a gas project, and another 34 two-storey accommodation units for the Ashburton Resort.
In addition, Earle reveals that TCH is preparing plans for a two-storey hotel above an open undercroft car park. “This will be a unique building from a modular construction perspective,” he adds. “The boundaries will be pushed once again, allowing multi-level modular buildings to be pushed to a new level – pardon the pun.”
As well as pushing boundaries, TCH wants to spread further the benefits of its existing technology. “We’d like to introduce the ThermaStruct ceiling system to the building industry in general,” says Earle. “It creates a safe working environment for not only the tradespeople during construction – it’s completely trafficable – but also for the building owner who might wish to have extra services retrofitted to the home at a later date.”
With only three directors and five office staff, TCH could be the smallest modular construction company in WA; yet its high motivation and progressive ideas have ensured its survival throughout downturns in the industry. Earle says the team is “very proud” of how far they’ve come and “look forward to the years ahead”; which, if the past five are any indication, should give rise to further innovative concepts and greater success.