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The construction industry has never been one to embrace change quickly. However, with outside factors such as skilled labor shortage, tight schedules and budget overruns impacting the industry today, change is inevitable.

Increasingly, owners are expecting a design and construction process that is efficient, productive and cost-effective to a degree that traditional construction methods are unable to deliver. They are beginning to question the efficiency of traditional delivery methods and see offsite design and construction as an approach that simply makes more sense. This movement toward prefabricated systems has been proven to alleviate many of the labor, cost, safety, quality and productivity pains felt on most projects today.

Advances in Prefabrication

Prefabrication isn’t new. The first use dates back to the 1800s, but prefabrication didn’t begin to gain popularity until Sears Roebuck began selling prefabricated homes in 1910. Almost 50 years later, two of Sweden’s most recognizable brands teamed up to create prefabricated BoKlok houses for the Scandinavian market. While affordable, many thought the houses lacked aesthetic appeal. This led to the stigma that is often attached to modular as standardized, mass-produced buildings.

Today, this stigma couldn’t be further from reality. Prefabrication has advanced significantly and offers high-quality finishes, aesthetic versatility and, most importantly, design flexibility. It’s also making a positive impact on construction projects in the following ways:

  • Reducing labor costs. Work can be done by fewer highly skilled workers in a safer and more productive environment with greater quality control.
  • Shortening schedules. Prefabricating components offsite can deliver a project 30% to 50% faster than traditional methods, according to the Modular Building Institute, since construction occurs simultaneously with site and foundation work. Schedule delays due to weather and other external factors are a non-issue given the build takes place in a controlled environment.
  • Reducing risk. Nearly half of firms using prefabricated or modular construction found improvements in site safety. Many have agreed on the three main safety benefits of a modular building process: the ability to do complex assembly at ground level, fewer workers on the jobsite, and for less time and a limited number of tasks that need to be completed at great heights.
  • Reducing waste. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when comparing construction to manufacturing, 57% of activities in construction are wasteful and non-value adding. These activities are not compensated. Conversely, research shows 77% of offsite construction users report a decrease in construction site waste, according to McGraw Hill Construction’s “Prefabrication and Modularization: Increasing Productivity in the Construction Industry.”
  • Reducing site impacts. Fewer workers and less equipment lead to reduced traffic onsite, fewer parking spaces needed and less material staging areasā —all of which help increase jobsite safety.
  • Delivering cost certainty. Because players align on project requirements from the beginning, the collaboration and transparency give all parties visibility into factors affecting the budget’s bottom line.

With wider adoption comes confusion about the differences between prefabrication and modular construction. As offsite construction gains more ground and popularity, it’s time for the industry to standardize the nomenclature.

The Wide Spectrum of Prefabrication

In the field, it’s common to hear the words “prefabrication” and “modular” referring to two different things. In reality, prefabrication is a much broader category that includes modular construction. Prefabrication refers to the process in which components are built offsite and then shipped to a jobsite for installation. Prefabrication is often interchangeable with “offsite construction” and spans multiple systems varying in complexity.

At one end of the prefabrication spectrum are kits and sub-assemblies for components such as cabinets, electrical racks and glazing. On the other end of the spectrum are multi-trade panels and modular units. While all types of prefabrication can bring value, the two types with the biggest benefit to commercial construction including the following.

  • Modular construction, also known as volumetric construction, refers to buildings produced in “modules.” Often the volumetric modules are complete rooms when transported to the jobsite, ready to be stacked to form a building. Depending on their use, modules are delivered complete with kitchen or bathroom fixtures. In the instance of larger rooms, multiple modules can be joined and internal walls can be removed onsite. Modular construction is best suited for projects with design repetition, such as hotels and multi-family housing.
  • Multi-trade panelized construction is a panel system that includes multiple trades. Like modular construction, these are constructed offsite and delivered as a single solution for onsite assembly. Examples of panelized solutions include complete façade systems, integrated structural and façade systems and MEP racks and risers. For example, a complete façade system may include the frame, insulation, windows and exterior finish, all delivered as a single unit. This results in fewer trades to manage and coordinate onsite. These multi-trade panels are also most successful when there is repetition in the design.

Industry research and data anticipate continuous growth in the prefabrication market. For contractors, it’s an opportunity to mitigate risk and deliver budget and schedule certainty to clients while providing safer jobsites. The first steps toward incorporating prefabrication into projects are to educate teams on the offsite spectrum and begin evaluating solutions that may make sense for upcoming projects.

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