Former Olympian drives prefab growth

Pamela Bell, CEO of industry body PrefabNZ.
Pamela Bell, CEO of industry body PrefabNZ.

Flimsy, freezing school classrooms and the dreaded drill of the dental nurse’s room have made “prefab” a dirty word to many New Zealanders.

Pamela Bell, CEO of industry body PrefabNZ is aware she’s got quite a mountain to climb to change this perception, but as the first Kiwi snowboarder to compete in the Olympics, she’s fairly adept with steep, slippery slopes. 

The former New Zealand champ helped put a minority sport on the map, representing New Zealand at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games in the giant slalom event. Fast forward 16 years and Bell, an architect, is now trailblazing in New Zealand’s construction industry finding ways to offer cost-effective housing solutions for quake-ravaged Cantabrians. 

Bell racing slalom in the FIS World Cup in Grachen, Switzerland 1997.
Bell racing slalom in the FIS World Cup in Grachen, Switzerland 1997.

“It is possible to get a one-off, beautiful, architecturally-designed house for between $200-300,000 using prefab technology,” Bell says.

“Prefab in New Zealand is tarred with the cheap, temporary, flimsy brush but we want to change that perception. Just because some walls or frames come in pre-built chunks, doesn’t mean it’s not an individual design or solid construction. 

“There’s lots of technology and innovation in this area but it’s something we don’t do so well in New Zealand and historically it’s been done much better in North America, Europe and Japan.”

PrefabNZ was spawned from Bell’s Masters of Architecture thesis which analysed New Zealand’s prefab industry. Prefabrication can mean anything from a house assembled entirely off-site to modular construction where pieces fit together like Lego, Bell says. Despite its broad applications, prefab methods have divided our construction and architectural communities. 

“Prefab is right at the intersection of business and design. That’s been a source of friction in the past and architectural prefabrication has not been economically successful here. That’s what drew me to my research, I wanted to know why it hadn’t worked,” Bell says.

Bell, a finalist in the 2014 Women of Influence Awards in the business entrepreneur category, has been at the intersection of creativity and industry her entire career. She honed many of her commercial skills as a professional snowboarder where she was forced to promote herself and her sport to gain sponsors.

“Being an athlete and learning about sponsorship, it became very obvious to me that you have to have one foot in the industry and economic reality and the other in the creative passion.

“It was a bit of a joke, really, being a woman in a minority sport back then… I had a few moments [pitching to sponsors] as a female in a room with a whole lot of middle-aged men - I was not well equipped but I learned a lot.”

While competing on an international level, Bell founded a snow gear clothing label, Fruition, which sold into New Zealand and Australia and the New Zealand Snowboarding Academy. But after retiring from sport she sold her clothing business in 2003 and resumed her architecture studies (which had been put on hold while competing). 

Bell’s thesis findings showed that prefabrication offers benefits such as faster construction, less wastage and controlled costs. Prefab construction reduced building site accidents as assembly of pieces such as roofs off-site required less building at height. Her paper also highlighted a lack of collusion between manufacturers, architects and builders around the technology. The need for an industry body uniting the whole supply chain was apparent, and she formed PrefabNZ in 2010.

“Pam is an extraordinary woman, she wrote a thesis identifying a problem and then thought ‘I actually better do something about it’,” says Dr Helen Anderson, the former chief executive of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology who is now chair of Branz, the New Zealand building industry’s centre for science and research. 

 “What she is doing is creating a mechanism in which the industry itself can think of ways to come up with innovative solutions to traditional building practices. 

“There are a huge number of builders in New Zealand that are one-man-bands and they sub-contract parts out, but that’s an inefficient process but we are starting to see more collaboration.”

PrefabNZ had to step up a gear following the February 22 Christchurch earthquake in 2011. Bell founded the HIVE (Home Innovation Village) in 2012, a collection of prefab showhomes from several different companies on display for homeowners, industry and the government. The HIVE had a thousand people through its doors in its first weekend, and Matthew Hay, general manager of Keith Hay Homes, has seen an increase in prefab homes since the complex opened its doors.

 Bell says that mass customised construction of prefabricated houses in Christchurch could reduce the amount of disruption during the rebuild process.

“More work performed in purpose-built facilities means less noise, transport and dust at site. For a community 

[like Christchurch] that will literally be living in a building site for the next twenty years, the benefits of more certainty and less disruption are clear. 

“The challenge for the industry going forward is to allow enough project lead time to adequately explore innovative delivery methods such as prebuilt construction.”

Bell is pushing for a similar HIVE to be built near Auckland to address the Super City’s housing woes.

“Auckland is a much more complicated space… We have been talking with the council and other ministry groups about setting up a permanent HIVE to showcase medium density affordable housing  - that’s much more of a slow burner,” Bell says.

“We definitely don’t want to talk about high density 14-storey Hong Kong apartments but there’s valid discussion around row houses two-level structures.”

While political indecision on Auckland’s housing zoning means it might be some time until medium density housing is erected in the city, in the meantime Bell is focussing on raising the profile of women in the construction industry.

A member of NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) and A+W (Architecture and Women), Bell believes accolades such as The Women of Influence Awards and the HAYS Recruitment’s Christchurch 

Women in Construction award increase female participation in male-dominated industries.

“[Awards] are a great way for professional women to get visibility and have something to aim for,” Bell says.

“I feel really strongly about women and visibility, I work quite hard to get women on the board at 

PrefabNZ, and attract women at our events as I think they have a lot to offer.

“It’s not about conforming to the existing boardroom structure