A push for prefab: Why offsite construction methods are moving to the mainstream
Until recently, the words "modular construction" likely evoked images of boxy, utilitarian overflow classrooms, and "prefabricated" connoted an inevitable sacrifice in style. However, today's offsite construction industry is an entirely different proposition.
In the last few years, general contractors and owners have become more receptive to its use, and designers are learning that prefabrication provides flexibility without constraining creativity.
A big boost to the offsite construction industry was the announcement earlier this month from hotel giant Marriott International that it plans to pursue a program of modular construction for some of its brands — representing approximately 13% of its North American hotel deals this year. That translates to 50 hotels with prefabricated bathrooms or guest rooms.
To date, Marriott has opened one modular hotel in California, which was completed two months ahead of schedule, and has four additional modular projects in progress, including a Courtyard in Washington and an AC Hotel in Oklahoma.
The manufacturer for the Oklahoma property is Guerdon Modular Buildings, based in Boise, ID. Lad Dawson, company CEO and managing partner, said the Marriott announcement will help increase awareness of the benefits of modular construction, as it comes at a kind of tipping point for the industry.
"Without any question, it legitimizes it," he said. The industry is at a juncture and is on the path that many technology companies have traveled, according to Dawson. "It's a shift that happens with all disruptive technologies," he said. "There's a period where people are looking at it, and then very quickly the technology takes off, and everybody jumps on board so they're not left behind."
Where the labor shortage meets modular
One specific area where prefab has made inroads, Dawson said, is the multifamily and affordable housing sectors, particularly in the last two years. Guerdon spends a lot of time educating owners and nonprofits about how modular could help their projects succeed, but he said construction designers and owners in that segment have been fairly resistant.
But then came the lingering labor shortage.
According to the Associated General Contractors, 73% of construction companies surveyed expect to have trouble finding qualified help this year, but 73% also expect to take on more work, which will increase staffing needs.
Anirban Basu, the Associated Builders and Contractors' chief economist, said contractors can expect continuing hiring difficulties, as well as a hike in workers' wages. Of course, this drives up project costs and frustration on the part of construction managers who might have to choose between project delays and cost overruns.
Proponents of offsite construction point to its controlled environment within a manufacturing facility as a benefit that the method has over traditional onsite building. In addition, offsite can reduce project schedules, thus reducing the amount of work hours needed.
"The general contractors in particular are now looking at modular construction from the standpoint of, 'What are the great things it can do, and how does it help me solve problems?'" Dawson said.
The 'continuum of offsite construction'
While Guerdon delivers entire prefabricated rooms for multiple projects, there's also a place for prefabrication in the traditional ground-up construction process, according to Roy Griffith, director of corporate development at Clark Pacific.
While Griffith said Clark Pacific has a group of customers who have hired the company to provide a bevy of precast concrete and other prefab services, they want more, including multi-trade subcontractor assemblies that can give them the benefit of offsite construction without going all in.
"You can keep the elegance of design and still get [the benefits] of prefab."
Director of corporate development at Clark Pacific
Different than a complete room solution, this strategy permits various trades, like electrical, mechanical and plumbing, to create a parallel schedule to the main project's timeline, saving time and money. Then, Griffith said, the prefab pieces are integrated into the overall project.
Structures with repetitive features — such as patient rooms, bathroom and other medical spaces in a hospital — are especially well-suited for the use of multi-trade subcontractor assemblies.
Griffith said there is a "continuum of offsite construction," with complete modules on one end and this more focused process of sub-assembly on the other. "Resistance," he said, "comes from the all-or-nothing crowd," with some believing that they have to "buy these boxes" or not use offsite construction at all. Griffith said the piecemeal approach could give some critics an easier introduction to prefab.
"Buildings that need to be contextual and need longer lifespans, like a dormitory, have requirements that push us to think about design in other ways," Griffith said. Those structures can have a prefab aspect by being broken down into prefab parts that can conform to any design. "You can keep the elegance of design and still get [the benefits] of prefab," Griffith said.
Why early collaboration is key
This smaller-scale prefabrication has found its way to interior construction as well. Ryan Ware, construction expert at DIRTT, said everyone's grabbing on and saying, "Let's do it. Let's try something different." DIRTT focuses on prefabrication of commercial, industrial and institutional interiors, using technology as a guiding principle.
Ware said that although offsite construction is on the rise, the company has to be proactive in getting designers to reach out in the project pre-planning stages, a collaboration that is key in realizing the maximum benefits of prefab.
Too often, he said, the primary design team of architects and engineers views the end products of prefabrication as commodities and not as a process that affects many other trades. "If you treat it like a product rather than a method of construction, it can end up disappointing because [the customer] didn't get to take advantage of the benefits," Ware said.
Project teams have a clear window of opportunity, Ware said, to be true partners, but after a certain point, that window closes — making an after-the-fact integration very difficult. "It's almost like [trying to] switch out a structural system or an HVAC system," he said. "You wouldn't do it. It's too much work."
Early integration can also shave time off the schedule. With that money, the customers can specify higher-quality finishes or just enjoy being able to move into hospitals, hotels or offices weeks early.
"If you can beat a schedule by for weeks in healthcare, that’s a huge amount of money," Ware said. The same goes for hotels — the sooner guests can start checking in, the more revenue that means for operators.
The education process is still ongoing, as designers and owners might still have misconceptions about the style and quality that prefab can offer. "It’s a change in philosophy of design and preconstruction management," Ware said.
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