Coming Attraction in Construction: If you happen to drive past the 3400 block of Main Street in August, you’ll get a chance to see the face of the construction industry changing right before your eyes. But don’t blink, because the 84 units in the 34+ Main apartment project will go from ground level to four stories in a hurry—only about three weeks.
“That,” said Steve Swanson, a partner at contractor Centric Projects, “is the power of prefabrication at work in the construction sector, and it’s a development that is helping lower project costs for owners, helping builders rein in costs, boost efficiencies and improve margins, and helping ensure the safety of workers by allowing them to work in controlled environments away from tall structures and the weather.”
The 34+ Main project is one phase of three by Chicago-based MAC Properties, and when finished, the Armour Main Redevelopment will infuse the Midtown market—just blocks from the southern border of greater Downtown—with 184 market-rate units. “The ability to take it from zero to 60,” Swanson said, “is grounded in the advances made in prefabrication.”
“These are actual module apartments,” Swanson said. “When they come, they are finished. At 34th and Main, the only thing we have to do is hook up water, the sprinkler, the fire alarm system and the HVAC. The flooring is in, the carpet is in, the walls are finished.”
This recent push isn’t the construction sector’s first flirtation with prefabrication, but thanks to advances in other building-design technologies, such as 3D modeling with Building Information Management systems, it’s got more staying power. That’s because the precision afforded by computer-generated structural drawings has never been better. When those units show up and are set in place, components for connections are placed exactly where they need to be.
What’s changing is the ability of the subcontractors and builders who assemble their own prefab components to factor more building-system components into a job. What started as structural framework with things like trusses and walls has evolved, taking on new complexities with entire apartment units. Those can come with components already inside the walls and floors, including plumbing, light fixtures, power lines for switches and receptacles, even curtains and blinds.
It’s most effective in step-and-repeat project work, as with student housing or limited-service hotels, which require multiple iterations of identical components. Think life-size Legos. The improved installation efficiency also helps contractors increase their volume, or add work that in the past might have been too sophisticated or complex to warrant a bid.
But it’s not limited to large-scale project that demand repeatability.
“Even the smallest projects are using elements of prefab more,” said Paul Neidlein, vice president with JE Dunn Construction.
“A light fixture, for example, with switch, conduit and wire all included, can be built into a wall with a wire running its exact length—whether it’s five feet or 30—and be set in place for connection,” he said. “So a single electrical trade contactor doing that can bring out 100 of those for an office project.”
“One thing changing,” he said, “was the ability to bring cross-disciplines into the prefabrication process.”
“What we call multi-trade prefab, we used at Overland Park Regional for their expansion,” Neidlein said of a recent medical-center project. “We prefabbed all the bathrooms, so we have the metal framing, the plumber and the electrician all in the warehouse, building in place these pods that would be shipped by truck and rolled into place. It’s a little different than a single contractor doing it in his own warehouse or shop.”
And in most cases, it’s a time saver, in a business where time indeed is money. While not all contractors will realize the same benefits, McGraw Hill’s SmartMarket Report on construction trends has noted that many contractors say prefabrication has cut their project schedules by at least four weeks, trimmed budget costs by 6 percent, and reduced waste by 5 percent or more.
But it’s not just about being more efficient for the sake of the business model. The world is changing around contractors, particularly with the size and shape of the work force entering the pipeline. The fact is, builders need more bodies right now as construction volume continues to tick up, and prefabrication helps stretch limited resources.
A large part of the prefabrication work being done now doesn’t require skilled craftsmen, and can be handled by newer workers at the apprentice stage. That allows builders to assign their more experienced workers to projects that demand more sophisticated skill sets.
By pushing much of the work forward into the design phase, contactors are changing the very nature of project work flow. Effective prefabrication means bringing together both office and field personnel, sometimes in new ways, so that foremen and project managers are working with both the prefabrication director on the end product, as well as purchasing staffers and estimators on the front end to determine the components, schedules and shipping details for each project.
“It’s not something that requires new skill sets,” said Swanson. “It’s a different way of thinking about project work flow. It changes the way the construction project all goes together, not just Part A to Part B, but what has to happen to make those go together. You have to think further ahead to understand what happens on the back end.”
“In that way,” said Mark Heit, vice president for McCarthy Building Companies’ office in Overland Park, “what’s happening with prefab work is part of a broader cultural shift for contractors.”
“All our people, all our partners, are encouraged to really challenge old processes—the standards of how we’ve always put work into place,” he said. “And that should be challenged. Prefab is an element of that for every major project. If you go to the Joplin Mercy Hospital replacement, all the patient-room headwalls, all the bathrooms that were repeated, were all built off-site. We rented a 35,000-square-foot warehouse and prefabbed all those walls with all the rough-end work and shipped them to the job site,” said Heit.
As an added benefit, prefabrication is proving its worth as part of strategies by contractors to be more environmentally friendly.
“Every major project has elements of prefabrication,” said Heit. “To us, prefab is a part of an overall lean construction effort. We’re very adaptive to the lean principles, and how we can adopt them to construction and lead to maximizing value and minimizing waste. Prefab is a part of that.”
“As the construction sector grapples with a stubborn shortage of skilled workers, the cost savings of prefab will assert themselves,” Swanson said. “Module and conventional construction right now are about the same in price, but as the labor shortage increases, the price will be more favorable for prefab,” he said. “Especially on the coasts, where the cost of of labor is so much more expensive.”
“Despite its increasing use in the sector, prefabrication is, in some ways, just taking off,” Neidlein said. “It is still really new in our processes,” he said. “We’re constantly looking for new areas where we can apply it. Some of the plumbing, mechanical and electrical trades were way ahead of the curve, doing this for their own work 10 years ago. What we’re learning is how we apply it to those areas and smaller projects, in pieces that make sense. Some we can’t, because of the nature how it’s being built or limitations with a crane—but there may be a lot more where we can.”