Hector Egger New Zealand Limited
Building offsite momentum
Business View Oceania interviews Tristan Franklin, Director of Hector Egger New Zealand Limited, for our focus on Prefab Construction in New Zealand
Brand-new on the NZ offsite timber manufacturing scene and backed by two decades of parent company experience in Switzerland, Hector Egger New Zealand proudly announces it is now in operation and ready to discuss your projects! The Cromwell-based firm specialises in the manufacture of high-tech timber structures and prefabricated timber panels for NZ residential and commercial building construction. Innovative offsite manufacturing solutions provided by Hector Egger will improve the diversity of construction options available in the market; providing cost certainty with higher quality outcomes that are sustainably focused and produced faster than traditional building methods.
Hector Egger New Zealand is a joint venture between Swiss company Hector Egger Holzbau AG and New Zealand partners Stephan Mäusli and Tristan Franklin. Hector Egger Holzbau AG are a leading European manufacturer with 20 years’ experience in offsite prefabrication of timber buildings and structures, with three ISO 9001 certified factories operating in Switzerland. Business View Oceania spoke with Tristan Franklin, Director of Hector Egger New Zealand Limited, about this visionary new company and insights into the bright future ahead. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
BVO: You have an exciting story to tell… how did the company evolution to New Zealand begin?
Franklin: “It’s certainly been an interesting journey. Stephan and I met when we became neighbours back in 2017. He had worked on a project with Hector Egger Holzbau in Switzerland about 15 years ago, designing an office building that they manufactured. Over time, Stephan maintained a close relationship with the company and owner Paul Schär – and after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, Stephan made contact with Hector Egger again because he thought prefabrication was needed as part of the Christchurch rebuild. For various reasons it didn’t progress at that time but three and a half years ago, Stephan got back in touch with them again…
“Part of the opportunity came about because Hector Egger were upgrading one of their Swiss factories to new robotic production lines, and they wanted to extend the useful life of the existing CNC machinery. It was specialised machinery that was customized for their business and workflow, so rather than sell it and give away some of their IP, we talked about bringing that machinery out to New Zealand and starting a business here. In 2018, Stephan and I went over and toured their factories during the 170 year anniversary of the original timber construction company. In 2019 they made the trip to New Zealand where we spent several weeks touring the country and exploring the market opportunity together. That’s how we got started.”
BVO: Why did you locate in Cromwell?
Franklin: “We chose Cromwell for a few key reasons. One was availability and affordability of industrial land and we knew Cromwell represented the best combination of these attributes in Central Otago. Cromwell also acts as the logistics hub for the region, with all goods passing through here via the numerous transport companies. A large number of the support businesses for the construction industry – windows, doors, hardware, security, electrical companies – are also based in Cromwell and service the local region from here. On that basis, we felt Cromwell would be a perfect location for our purposes.
“During the early phases of the project we maintained a reasonably low profile. Getting a business like this from concept to operational requires some focus and perseverance, and as expected, will present more than a few hurdles to clear! So we were quite careful not to go out to the market too early and start promising things we might not be able to deliver. We knew that having a pipeline of work on start-up was crucial, so we started talking to private developers, attending industry conferences, networking and just building relationships. We were low-key but at the same time working hard to identify projects that were suitable for us.”
BVO: How would you describe the new facility?
Franklin: I’m pleased to say we opened the factory on January 11th, 2021 with a pipeline of about nine months work from start-up. The Cromwell factory is a 3,000 square metre clear span building: 12 metres to the apex with two 6.5 tonne gantry cranes doing the heavy lifting. The operation is based on a lean manufacturing methodology that our Swiss partners have developed, and we are now copying those same processes and IP – replicating rather than reinventing the wheel. The new factory layout is a copy of the largest Swiss factory and we have now installed and commissioned the Hundegger and Weinmann CNC machines to full operation.
“Attached to that factory is a 450 square metre, two-storey office building, all constructed in timber. We prefabricated that in our Swiss factory and shipped it out in six 40-foot containers. Actual construction of the factory began in Jan. 2020 with a 12 month build program. We lost six weeks of our programme due to the COVID-19 shutdown but caught a lot of that up and completed the project within three weeks of our original programme. We currently have 15 employees and expect to increase to 20-25 once we move to a second shift in the factory.”
BVO: What does the manufacturing process entail?
Franklin: “We manufacture the timber panels and elements for residential and commercial building projects. For example, the first project we’re doing is North Villas at Jacks Point, Queenstown. It consists of six duplex townhouses comprising 12 x 3 and 1 bedroom homes. Each one of those duplexes has 75 unique timber panels and elements making up the structure including walls, mid-floor and roof cassettes.
“In the initial design process we build a 3D model so we can detail every aspect of the project. Every piece of timber, every staple and every screw are included in the model so we can resolve all of the connections before prefabrication. For this next stage we use two CNC machines, the Hundegger K2i which cuts all the timber and connection details, and the Weinmann Multi-function bridge where we assemble, insulate and line the panels. This machine has a large robotic gantry that runs over the top of the panels and does the stapling, nailing, screwing, cutting and routing of the various types of lining including OSB and gib board. We insulate those panels as well and where required put conduits in for electrical services. So, in the factory, we end up with three transport trailers of components for each of those duplexes and we take those onsite and assemble that structure in less than a week, to weathertight.
“There are also a number of sustainable benefits to our process. In the factory, we use 12 metre lengths of timber for all our framing, because the software can optimize the cutting and therefore minimize the amount of timber going to waste. We use locally sourced LVL engineered timber products supplied directly from the manufacturer and all of our timber is sustainably grown in New Zealand.”
BVO: Do you offer specialised training for your workers?
Franklin: “Yes. The design side of the business is a highly specialised area. We brought a member of the Hector Egger design team down here 18 months ago and he’s been instrumental in helping us set up that side of the business. Because what we do is relatively unique to New Zealand, we have to do the majority of training ourselves. Normally, if we didn’t have the issue with COVID-19, we’d be able to bring in experienced labour from Switzerland or Germany, where they’re used to this type of methodology, but we don’t have that ability at the moment. So we’re slowly building our team up and providing training as we go. But on the manufacturing side, once the design work is done and the machines have all the necessary shop drawing files, it’s not hugely complicated and workers can be trained reasonably easily.”
BVO: What is the growth plan going forward?
Franklin: “We’re obviously taking a conservative view on our first year. We have five diverse projects under contract, which will take us through to September with several others in various stages of development. We expect the equivalent of about 40 houses in our first 12 months. Once we’re operating with a fully trained team and running a second shift, we can probably get that up to the equivalent of 100 houses.
“We have found developers most interested in what we are doing and keen to look at what we can offer them. Obviously, speed to completion – shortening the project timelines is appealing, but also the higher quality product coming from the factory environment, compared to onsite. Architects are also looking toward sustainable materials for their projects, and in countries like New Zealand with zero carbon emission targets, there is a shift towards using more timber as a carbon-sequestering product, and minimising the use of steel and concrete, where possible. We have a lot of individuals contacting us because they hear a Swiss offsite manufacturing company has started here – these are people typically looking to build certified passive or high-performance homes. There is huge interest from that sector. And structural timber engineers are also supportive of our company and the capabilities that we can offer to the market. So we’re just at the very early stages of building those relationships.
“We always knew we’d have to get the factory built and some projects completed before we got a lot of traction from some parts of the industry, and now we can feel that momentum building. We would never have set out to do this without our Swiss partners, their IP and proven model to copy. They’ve spent 20 years ironing out the complexities within timber offsite manufacturing, so we have the benefit of that experience. It’s given us a head start by being able to replicate what our partners are already doing, and we look forward to great success in the future. And just like the Hector Egger company motto – ‘Think. Plan. Build’ – we will approach every project with the same methodology, and always in that order.”
AT A GLANCE
Hector Egger New Zealand Limited
What: Manufacturer of high-tech timber structures and prefabricated timber panels
Where: Headquarters in Cromwell, NZ