By Vicki Speed
From a residential high-rise in New York City to low-cost hotels in Europe, the application of prefabricated and modular objects and systems continues to capture the interest of owners, architects, contractors, fabricators and product manufacturers in the building industry.
Around the world, prefabrication proponents are finding ways to apply offsite construction techniques that go way beyond repeatable systems such as bathroom pods or mechanical pipe rack to more volumetric, pioneering, semi-customized solutions that address a wide range of common construction challenges.
In some parts of the world, like Japan and the United Kingdom, owners and project teams have necessarily moved to offsite construction methods because of land prices and the cost of labor,” said Ryan Smith, associate professor and director in the College of Architecture + Planning at the University of Utah (USA), and chairman of the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Off-Site Construction Council (OSCC). “Amortizing land is prohibitive in these countries, so owners favor methods that facilitate faster construction schedules. Labor is more expensive, also necessitating quick turnaround on construction duration.”
However, he added, the greater interest and application of offsite construction methods in recent years is largely driven by two ongoing challenges in the global construction industry: the need to improve construction productivity and skilled-labor shortages in some parts of the world.
North American Methods Shifting
Concerns about labor shortages are one of the primary reasons for increased interest in offsite construction in North America.
In its 2014 US Markets Construction Overview, FMI, a global provider of management consulting, investment banking and research to the engineering and construction industry, predicts that modularization and prefabrication will play an increasingly vital role in the US construction value chain because emerging demand is outrunning the availability of skilled tradespeople.
Meanwhile, many international contractors are looking to their European or Asian counterparts for ideas.
In our experience, prefabrication and modularization are primarily driven by our need to be more competitive and deliver a project at the lowest cost and schedule certainty – and the Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) subcontractors have taken the lead in delivering effective solutions for good reason,” said Don Goodrich, director of preconstruction services at Sundt, a construction company based in Phoenix, Arizona (USA). “The MEP trades are facing a considerable labor shortage. The increasing use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) helps bring the prefabrication conversation to the forefront as well.”
Deciding when to use a prefab approach is based on the challenges of a specific project, Goodrich said. “We’re translating prefab and modular techniques that we learn from one job to other jobs as much as possible,” he said.
In one case, Sundt transferred the modular technology approach from a private prison construction project to a much larger state prison project.
Modular construction at the Corrections Corporation of America’s detention facility in Otay Mesa, California (Image © Sundt Construction, Incorporated)
Global Multi-Trade Opportunities
Similarly, UK-based Balfour Beatty, an international infrastructure lifecycle services company, relies on prefabrication and modular methods to construct a number of different structures to achieve considerable value.
Some phases of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, for example, were completed a year early. Likewise, Belgium-based Inter IKEA Group, parent company of the IKEA furniture brand, teamed with Marriott International, a hospitality company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland (USA), to create low-cost prefabricated hotels in Europe.
FMI Senior Consultant Ethan Cowles expects the use of prefab and modularization to grow quickly in health care, lodging and education, as it already has done in the fast food market.
OSCC’s Smith agrees. “We see full volumetric prefabricated construction mostly with owners of smaller structures, some housing and some industrial markets,” he said. “Owners of fast-food franchises, automotive service centers, daycare, data centers, hospitals, multi-family and mid-rise structures, and others with repeatable structural requirements, are becoming more engaged in design-build and integrated delivery and are not so dependent on open bid requirements.”
Looking ahead, Cowles and Smith point to growing interest and demand for multi-trade prefabrication and modularization.
“The success of a multi-trade scenario will depend on the owner seeing value and capable contractors coming together contractually to maximize the benefits,” Cowles said.
Rethinking Conventional Practices
Despite the promise that prefabrication and modularization holds for the building industry, the approach is not without wrinkles – as witnessed by the lawsuits related to New York’s B2 Tower project.
Cowles and Smith noted that offsite approaches inherently require early coordination and decision-making to maximize the value.
Offsite construction also requires that owners, architects and contractors rethink the conventional processes that have been industry standards for decades.
“The building technology and methodology for offsite construction is not mysterious,” Smith said. “There’s very little technical challenge or complexity to the process, very little intellectual property, relatively speaking, in comparison to other manufacturing industries. The challenge has more to do with tacit knowledge related to the social, political, regulation and economic context in which offsite construction unfolds.”
Integrating prefabrication and modularization into the construction build cycle adds value, but it’s not a panacea, Smith said. “I don’t see these methods adopted on every project; but, most certainly, as components of an overall project build to minimize labor, increase productivity and improve schedules – in short, to add value.”