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By Megan Headley
August 21, 2017
You might think that a process change that could help solve some of the construction industry’s biggest challenges — including the struggle to find skilled workers, too-high job site injury rates, and the demand to produce ever-more complex projects on exceedingly shorter deadlines — might get pretty immediate buy-in. Prefabrication is touted as a solution to many of the problems hammering the construction industry. Although the number of projects using systems built in a factory environment has grown in the last decade, the industry still struggles to see widespread adoption by general contractors.
A recent survey conducted by AEC consultant FMI found that the amount of work using prefabricated components nearly tripled from 2010 to 2016 to a whopping 35%. Almost 90% of the contractors using prefabrication reported their prefabrication process as ineffective or in need of improvement.
Demand for greater project efficiency and the availability of new construction technology are nudging contractors ever closer to prefabrication. So what’s holding them back from getting the biggest bang out of the project owner’s buck?
Well, for starters, effective prefabrication demands a complete rethinking of traditional construction processes. FMI notes that it can be made more effective through changes to company culture, commitment to the process, and letting go of the control mindset. By addressing these factors and making the most of the available resources, ready to commit contractors can begin to harness some of the powerful benefits of prefabrication.
Invest Time Upfront to Save Time Later
It does indeed take a serious commitment to make prefabrication a standard part of one’s offerings because it takes a major upfront investment in time — and time is one thing few GCs can spare.
“General contractors are never cursed with having too much time, so it is difficult to take the time to learn how to prepare and oversee a project with prefab,” says Julie Pithers of DIRTT Environmental Solutions, a Calgary-based manufacturer of highly customized modular interiors. But, she adds, “It is worth taking the time to learn the nuts and bolts of what it takes to run a project with prefab so it is as efficient as possible and expectations for a shorter schedule with fewer labor costs are met.”
Prefabrication demands a new way of thinking about time, Pithers points out, which can be an added stressor for GCs. For starters, GCs will need to move from traditional sequencing to coordinate multiple trades on-site at once. In addition, modular construction places new procurement demands on GCs, who must know today exactly what they want installed tomorrow, with little room for adjustment.
“Conventional prefabricators cannot deviate from their end product and it must be ordered several weeks in advance. So if the jobsite measurements are wrong or change, the prefabricator cannot react in a timely or budget-friendly manner,” Pithers says. If this is a deal-breaker, it may help to know it is not the case for all prefabrication. Pithers explains, “There are some in the market now who are considered mass-customization prefab. They are able to match the base building and design requirements with a 3-week lead time.”
None of these scheduling issues are insurmountable. Today’s new tech tools, ranging from collaborative BIM platforms to virtual or augmented reality software can provide better upfront planning.
Focus on the Biggest Benefits for your Team
Prefabrication won’t necessarily help across the board, so determine early where you can get the biggest benefit and start there.
In the early stages of building the Miami Valley Hospital Tower addition, Shook Construction participated in a brainstorming session with the owner and design team to pinpoint areas, where prefabrication could generate the most efficiency. The team asked subcontractors to create mock-ups that could help pinpoint specific areas of value. Through this research, the team felt confident it could best benefit through prefabrication of MEP corridor racks, patient bathroom pods, and patient header/footer walls.
These simple elements led to significant cost and time savings. For example, Shook found that it was able to run three times as much electrical conduit in its prefabrication warehouse than it would on a typical site, its shop labor costs were at approximately 80% of field labor costs, and the project significantly out-performed typical safety metrics for such a large, complex building.
Try, Learn, Repeat
Mortenson Construction, which has turned prefabrication into a market differentiator, notes that the biggest benefits are often those that can be applied from project to project. The company points to hotel bathrooms or hospital headwalls as components that can benefit from prefabrication as they involve a number of trades — such as finishing, plumbing, and electrical — but are all essentially the same. On St. Joseph replacement hospital project, the rapid installation of 446 modular bathrooms and more than 400 prefabricated headwalls helped the construction management team shave months off the construction schedule.
FMI found in its survey that almost 80% of respondents use prefabrication on fewer than half of their projects, and they are considerably less effective at this technique than those who prefabricate on more than half of their projects. That’s because it takes time and learning (which often comes through failures) to get this approach right. But, ultimately, the repetition of the prefabrication process will help contractors to learn the best application of this approach.
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