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Policy briefing: Full transcript, Sept 30

Updated: Sep 30,2016 5:20 PM

Xi Yanchun (host):

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Welcome to the policy briefing of the State Council. A recent executive meeting decided to develop prefabricated buildings, with related documents released by the State Council.

Today, we’re glad to be joined by Chen Yiming, chief engineer at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and Su Yunshan, director of the Department of Science and Building Energy Saving at the ministry. They will give us more information and answer questions. Now, Mr. Chen, please.

Chen Yiming:

Friends from the press, good morning. China has attached great importance to the technological advances and healthy development of the construction industry. The CPC Central Committee and the State Council released an opinion on how to improve the construction and management of urban planning, after the Central Urban Work Conference held last December.

According to the document, prefabricated buildings will account for 30 percent of new construction in about a decade. In this year’s government work report, Premier Li Keqiang also stressed developing concrete-structured and other prefabricated buildings, streamline the standards, and improve technologies and construction quality. We have been working to come up with a guideline, part of efforts to implement the central government’s mandates. The guideline, which has been approved and issued by the State Council, stipulates eight tasks:

First, set up a standards and regulations system. National standards, as well as industrial and regional ones, should be established for prefabricated buildings. The regulations system should cover the entire process of designing, producing, constructing and maintaining the buildings.

Second, promote innovative designs. Integrated designs should be encouraged by coordinating building structure, electro-mechanical equipment, parts and components, prefabricated construction, and accessories. Building Information Modeling technologies should be better utilized to improve collaborative designing capabilities.

Third, optimize production of parts and components. Backbone enterprises and manufacturing bases should be developed into industrial exemplars in technologies, equipment and management. They need to control the manufacturing scale and supply scope to cut costs and improve efficiency.

Fourth, guide enterprises to develop technologies and equipment that adapt to prefabricated buildings, in a bid to improve construction quality and safety.

Fifth, promote overall design that should be constructed with major structure and electro-mechanical device at the same time.

Sixth, popularize green building materials by applying to doors and windows materials that are energy-efficient, and weeding out those that are not environment-friendly.

Seventh, promote the overall contract mode of engineering projects.

Eighth, enhance quality and safety of engineering projects by setting up accountability systems and responsibility tracing mechanisms.

Also, cultivate more talent that can meet the demands of prefabricated buildings.

This is a brief introduction of the main tasks outlined by the document. I’d like to answer your questions now. Thank you.

Xi Yanchun:

Thank you, Mr Chen. Now questions, please.

China Radio International:

We still do not know what a prefabricated building is, what kind of advantages it has, and why it should be vigorously promoted in China.

Chen Yiming:

This question can be answered from several aspects.

First, prefabricated buildings refer to factory-made components or units that are transported and assembled on-site to form the complete building. Some reporters who have knowledge about construction may be familiar with the common practice of cast-in-place construction, which usually transports construction materials to the site and cast templates there.

Now we intend to alter the method with components, such as beams, columns, boards, manufactured off-site in advance, and shipped to the site to assemble and cast them together, shaping into a complete construction -- that is prefabricated buildings. Prefabrication rate can measure the construction level of prefabricated buildings, namely, the amount of components manufactured in a factory and the amount of on-site cast work are reduced.

Also, another reason that we are promoting prefabricated buildings is that it is a reform of construction method, as well as a key move to promote the supply-side reform proposed by the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. Currently, most domestic construction projects are cast-in-place, and it affects the manufacturing speed, quality and function. Judged from international practices, the skill of prefabricated buildings is pretty mature. After World War II, some European countries started to strongly push it, which is based on three conditions: First, a good foundation of industrialization; second, labor shortage as a result of the war; third, a large number of houses need to be constructed. The three conditions are seen as favorable to develop prefabricated buildings. Thus, compared with the mature international prefabricated buildings, which have been developed over 50 to 60 years, the development of prefabricated buildings in China is still backward, in terms of its proportion and scale. It is a major concern why we intend to promote it with strength.

Chen Yiming:

Let me answer the third question. Developing prefabricated buildings has several benefits:

First, it saves resources and energy. The current cast-in-place construction method usually generates a lot of construction waste.

Second, it reduces pollution. As we know, pollution includes dust and noise. When the college entrance examination time comes every year, basically every city’s construction management department restricts night construction, to prevent them from affecting students’ studying and sleep. Obviously, many traditional construction methods are not suitable for the needs of modern cities.

Third, it can effectively improve the efficiency of production.

Fourth, it has a very positive role in improving construction quality.

Further, the development of prefabricated buildings can promote the in-depth integration of informatization and industrialization. In addition, it can also breed a number of new industries, serving as new momentum for economic development. In particular, the development of steel structures can produce positive effects to alleviate overcapacity in steel production. Thanks.

Phoenix TV:

I have two questions. First, will prefabricated buildings have a positive effect on engineering safety and prevent jerry-built projects? Second, real estate prices in first and second tier cities are rising fast; will your ministry have any response to the situation? And do you have any plan to further cut excessive real estate capacity in the second and third tier cities?

Chen Yiming:

I’ve just mentioned that one of the major benefits of prefabricated buildings is enhancing engineering quality. Because, in prefabricated buildings, many components are produced in factories instead of cast-in-place, which will be subjected to higher standards, more checks and supervision. And, as to on-site construction, a responsibility system for prefabricated buildings has been set up and many standardized tools created, which can ensure safety.

Now, some buildings in Chinese cities have begun to be constructed in the prefabricated way. They will set a solid foundation for future projects.

During our investigation, we found that the use of prefabricated buildings raised the cost of some construction companies because of the change in the construction procedure. For example, in the past all workers just needed to finish their job on the construction site, but after the reform some of them had to move to the factory.

However, we also found that if the construction company has effective management and an excellent team, it is able to digest the rising cost without being hurt.

As to the second question, the excessive capacity and macro-control of the real estate market, that is another issue. We have been doing research on it right now. In fact, what I said today is a kind of transformation in capacity. For example, if there are more steel-structure buildings, the capacity of steel can be cut. It is the same with prefabricated buildings.

Xi Yanchun:

The task of cutting overcapacity requires cooperation among various departments, and it should be carried out under the unified deployment of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. In the future, we will invite other departments to talk about their latest progress.

China Daily:

I have two questions. The first one, what problems is the country facing in the process of developing prefabricated buildings, and what measures will be taken to solve such problems? The second one, materials provided to the media say that prefabricated building promotion will save a lot of building materials, such as timber, water and mortar. Is there any detailed data on this? Such as, how many materials will be saved?

Chen Yiming:

There are several problems that need to be solved in the development of prefabricated buildings. The first one is to cultivate market needs. China has a lot of construction projects, but the willingness to use prefabricated buildings is not strong. The second is to protect the market supply. We hope to construct our buildings using a prefabricated method. Then, whether the internal production of the industry and the supply of structural parts could meet the needs is also a problem. The third is talent training. Builders’ skills training is a necessary part of promoting market development and ensure the quality of prefabricated buildings. Therefore, now there is a lot of work to do from the aspects of market supply and demand, enterprises’ capacity and builders’ skills.

We do have some data about prefabricated buildings’ savings on resources and energy. However, such savings show up as different performances among different enterprises and different types of buildings. For example, residential buildings and public buildings will save on different materials. Less wood needed for prefabricated buildings will save on wood. Such buildings will produce less debris and use less steel and cement, which will save on labor costs.

Meanwhile, some enterprises provided data concerning their construction cycle, saying that some projects can cut one-third of their construction period. Although enterprises, projects and project locations vary, in general, there are significant savings on material consumption, such as cement, water and wood.

People’s Daily:

As we can see, prefabricated buildings include wooden buildings, which have a history of thousands of years in China. Wooden buildings have a short life span and are subject to rot, fire and worm damage, so why do we still promote such buildings?

Chen Yiming:

Wooden buildings are a common concern. We promote such buildings only in places where conditions are in place. And what we promote is modern wooden buildings that are quite different from traditional ones. The differences lie in three aspects.

First, modern wooden buildings use not just original timber. Rather, they use engineered timber, which differs from original timber, as the former uses modern technologies to build original timber into beams and pillars that are suitable for construction. For example, planks are quite different from plywood that is processed, although both are made from wood.

Second, the way wood is connected is different. Traditional wooden structure is tenon-and-mortise work, while modern wooden structure is built with metal parts and components.

Third, materials in modern wooden structures are often recycled. In some countries with advanced wooden structure technologies, these materials can be recycled six to seven times and finally become wooden balls as fuel, somewhat like the coal balls we used before.

As for the need to prevent rotting and fire, we already have technologies to solve these problems. Internationally, wooden buildings have been developing for a long time. We can learn the development situation from various sources. Canada, for instance, is now constructing 18-storey wooden buildings that have no problems in terms of durability and security. China has also been developing wooden buildings in recent years, including large gyms, swimming pools and libraries, as technologies are already in place to prevent rotting and fire.

China National Radio:

I would also like to ask a question about timber-framed buildings. Domestically, even internationally, forest resources are becoming scarce. Is there a contradiction? How to strike a balance between protecting forest resources and using wooden materials?

Chen Yiming:

The premise of developing timber structures is that the place has appropriate conditions and has the appeal to develop timber construction. The conditions involve resources, techniques and applications. Before issuing the document, we negotiated with the State Forestry Administration, and concluded that the timber reserves in China’s planted forests are enough to support the development of timber-framed construction.

Also, as our neighboring countries have been exporting timber to China, timber-framed construction has grown in places near borders and ports. In some countries, for instance, planted forests are exploited or partially chopped down in case of decay and fire. In Japan, public buildings up to three stories, such as kindergartens and libraries, use wooden structures. This is an important measure to cultivate an industrial chain combining deforestation of planted forests and the need for timber architecture, and an important way to change the proportion of architectural structures.

Technology is important. If one day, we have mature conditions to further develop modern timber-framed construction, we will have to ensure the techniques are sufficient as in the international community.

Xinhua News Agency:

You mentioned that China will promote steel buildings, and I think steel enterprises will be excited about this. My question is, for prefabricated buildings, what is the focus in formulating standards for steel structures? What is the current status? What main measures will be in place to promote steel structures?

Chen Yiming:

I think it is better not to use “excited” in your report, because we need to take a calm attitude on this issue. We did make some progress in steel structures under current national conditions, but a lot of technical problems remain unsolved, such as quality and specifications. Currently, steel structures are more widely used in public buildings than in residential buildings. Consumers need time to accept this process, just as we moved from brick houses to concrete buildings. Some provinces and cities with the right conditions have deployed some steel buildings, but we still have much room to improve. So promotion does not mean a unified adoption of steel structures for all public or residential buildings at some point. We expect healthy growth, but “excited” would not be appropriate at this time.

Before issuing the circular, we consulted with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. As the administrative department for steel production, the ministry shared opinions and approaches with us, including on implementation. Thank you.

Guangming Daily:

We have noticed that our country promoted the prefabricated large panel building in the 1980s and 1990s. But it soon went out of the market. So I want to ask if we might make the same mistake in developing the prefabricated building?

Chen Yiming:

Large panel buildings were introduced to China from abroad in the 1950s and 1960s. Such buildings had several characteristics: they could be built very quickly and the layout was standard. But they also had their defects. The size was homogeneous. After the marketization of houses, the layout of such large panel buildings could not meet various needs. And there was neither innovation nor research and development following the introduction of such buildings. Other problems also arose in construction, such as leaking problems in connecting areas. In the 1980s, there was a sufficient labor force in the building industry, and costs for cast-in-place buildings dropped sharply. And those buildings soon replaced the large panel buildings.

Now the prefabricated building we mentioned is not the same as the large panel building. They are totally different. I think there is no need to worry that the new prefabricated building will lead to the same error.

China News Service:

You just mentioned that the proportion and scale of prefabricated buildings are not satisfactory. Can you introduce the current proportion and scale? Second question, what is the cost range to promote such buildings? Third, why do you classify different areas when promoting such buildings? Is it because there is resistance?

Su Yunshan:

Currently, we have achieved certain basics in our country, and accumulated some experiences. However, the progress is slow, and the proportion of prefabricated buildings in new structures is not high. According to our rough statistics, the proportion is around 5 percent, quite a big gap with other countries.

The cost for a building varies according to different structures. Generally speaking, if the scale is small, it will be a little bit more expensive than a cast-in-place concrete structure. We have some demonstration projects reaching a certain scale, and the cost is equal to cast-in-place concrete. Some demonstration projects even have lower costs. So we have confidence in prefabricated buildings. After all, this will be industrialized. With technologies becoming more mature, scale becomes bigger, and the costs will be lower.

Su Yunshan:

As to the third question, you asked why the promotion method of prefabricated buildings is different in different regions. Because, as Mr Chen just said, the basic principle of the development of prefabricated buildings is to adjust to local conditions. The choice of structure -- concrete, steel or wood-- should depend on the local industry foundation and technology.

In addition, we will not rush to promote it, but do it step by step. For example, the construction industry in the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is well developed, accounting for about one half of the total volume in China. So we will promote prefabricated buildings first in these regions, making it an example for other regions.

Chen Yiming:

Let me add some points to answer this question. In understanding this issue, we need to know some basic ideas. For an enterprise, as long as it has some production scale, normative, scientific and orderly management, skilled workforce, and is well-equipped with machines, tools and materials, the effect of cost increases as a result of production adjustment will be overcome. Therefore the effect will not be passed on to the chain of construction as well.

In addition, in achieving the goal, we promote our work differently in three areas: First, three major city clusters are the priority. Second, active efforts will be made to promote the prefabricated buildings in other major cities with a population of over 3 million. Third, we will choose some other regions where such buildings will be encouraged.

As we calculated, the total output value of construction industries and new construction area in priority and actively promoted areas accounted for over 50 percent of the total in all regions, that is, the two regions accounted for more than half of the size and output value of the nation. That’s why we plan big efforts to promote prefabricated buildings in these two regions.

Xi Yanchun:

Now, today’s policy briefing is over. Thank you, Mr Chen and Mr Su. Thank you all, and I wish you a happy National Day!