Owner Perspective on using Prefabrication and Modular Construction

In this blog series Are Prefabrication and Modular Construction Providing Improvements?, you will find out why the various players in the Construction Industry agree that both Prefabrication and Modular Construction can improve safety and quality, reduce costs and schedules, and enhance sustainability performances despite the workforce shortages, supply chain uncertainties, and other challenges.

Owners who are using prefabrication and modular construction praise its use and know that if they are not the driving force behind these approaches the industry will be reluctant to engage.

From a survey conducted by Dodge Data & Analytics in November 2019 to gain the perspective of owners, they interviewed 5 individual owners with projects using these approaches in four different sectors:

  • 1 in healthcare
  • 1 in education
  • 1 in hospitality
  • 2 in residential

They all are planning to use more of these approaches in the future. They described the main benefits, challenges, and the decision-making process as follows.

Benefits driving use of prefabrication and modular construction

The use of prefabrication and modularization has been facilitated by advances in manufacturing methods, construction equipment, information technology tools, and project delivery systems. The 5 owners interviewed in the survey cited similar benefits:

The Ability to Compress Schedules

a solution that could be completed quickly

you can do it in parallel with other activities

we want sustainable buildings, and also want to build them faster and cheaper, and modular provides all that

Better Quality

modular construction can be tested, or it can be inspected in an easier environment than out in the field

more consistent quality of finishes in the guests’ rooms

Fewer Labor Issues

trained skilled labor is becoming scarcer… it is generally a different pool that is doing prefabricated work

much lower labor rate

Improved Site Logistics

you don’t have as many people out there, [who] need bathrooms and break areas

the fact that a lot of major construction elements happen offsite shrunk the space needs as we went from phase to phase

Be Innovative

had the style and the environmental aspects that we were attracted to

we are a new firm, and we like to think of ourselves as agile moving with technology

Sustainability and Cost-saving

These were also mentioned by some of the owners, but not all

Challenges with using prefabrication and modular.

While the owners agree on the benefits, each brought up unique challenges they have faced in implementing these approaches.

The healthcare and hospitality owners find that the supply chain, of prefabrication and modular companies, is still limited. Both expect more activity will help solve this issue. The healthcare owner also notes that these companies need more automation to be more performant.

The health care owner mentioned, “If I am building half of the building off-site, I have half the amount of people onsite and all the overhead associated with those folks. That cost is not accommodated in the prefab model”.

A residential owner notes that the financing sector still needs to understand better this mode of construction. He is part of a group designing guidelines on what to expect from these kinds of projects.

The education owner finds that there is a trade-off in terms of the limitations of the modular model. You have to work within its parameters.

Getting designers to change their processes to design for prefabrication has also been challenging for the healthcare owner.

The decision-making process for taking these approaches

One clear finding from the five interviews is that owners drive the use of these approaches.

Selecting prefabrication vs traditional site construction methodologies is complex and based on various factors:

  • site circumstances,
  • skilled staff accessibility,
  • transportation environment,
  • owners’ readiness,
  • local laws,
  • project schedule and budget,
  • sustainability requirements, and
  • design complexity

The key to prefabrication is to acquire early feedback from specialty subcontractors.

Feedback focuses on the ability to achieve

  • tolerances,
  • delivery times,
  • equipment availability,
  • repetitiveness

Evaluating alternative schemes for stick-built and modular built aspects of the project will help you to narrow it down to one solution.

Major prefabrication details in terms of systems and sizes are isolated through early design routines and iterative parametric studies.

The studies on modules are designed under the drive of the owner so he can support these approaches and their associated details. Once alternatives are chosen, constructability reviews, preliminary sequencing, and code reviews can be conducted to help select the best alternatives. These alternatives are then compared to the other systems to narrow down the ideas to the single best solution to be then fully designed.

Constructability, site logistics, and planning for fabrication and construction should be formulated to make sure the design meets the appropriate construction requirements.

The parameters will determine what material is available and its associated limitations.

Fabrication inherently implies there is manufacturing, of components, elements, and assemblies to a certain level before they are shipped to the site for final assembly (construction).

Within fabrication there are two primary core ideas, they are:

  • planning the production in the factory and
  • the actual production of the modular unit.

The production line for making the units can take three directions:

  • All hand assembly (human workforce)
  • Fully automated (machine workforce only)
  • A hybrid of 1 and 2.

Depending on the modular units and available automated machinery, the third option is most likely.

Once the modular unit or assembly is finished within the factory, then the construction phase starts.

A major advantage with modular construction is that it takes most of the production and time away from the construction site which is often the slow unproductive activities in construction.

On-site placement of modules reduces the high variability in how different structural types could be constructed.

Construction starts with an adjustment to the structural schedule for any delays or conditions that appear on site or issues that occurred at the factory and were not previously accounted for.

The first construction task is the erection of any supporting structure that will be used to support the module(s).

Often, these are lateral systems and possibly even floor/diaphragm systems. At the same time, foundations need to be constructed. Once constructed, the modular units can be set into place and attached/connected to other building support systems.

In Conclusion

The owners in the Construction Industry agree that both Prefabrication and Modular Construction can improve safety and quality, reduce costs and schedules, and enhance sustainability performances despite the workforce shortages, supply chain uncertainties, and other challenges.

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