To get the most out of prefabricated solutions, we must rethink what we consider “business as usual.” Even with Global Market Insights predicting more than 6% growth in modular and prefabricated construction between now and 2032, prefabrication still doesn’t account for as much finished work as it could (and maybe even ought to).
The exact reason why is probably a more nuanced and complex conversation than can be had in a single column, but for the sake of argument, we think there’s a lot of resistance to the fact that preconstruction isn’t a miracle solution — it’s a new way to work requiring a new way of thinking about how we work.
Are we so used to the challenges of traditional construction that we don’t want to face new ones? Or worse, do we really believe there’s a solution to all our problems that won’t require us to adjust? We can’t expect improvement if we can’t accept that growth is a process, not a product.
Consider how we design and build cars and trucks. Every new vehicle uses the most appropriate materials, technologies and assembly methods available at the time, and there are sometimes issues and challenges, particularly with a major redesign or an entirely new model. Even if the dreaded recall is avoided, something new can always be added, updated or changed from one year to the next.
Technology advancements, improved sustainability, better component longevity, more storage space and a multitude of safety feature upgrades are always around the corner. It seems not so long ago that hybrid electric vehicles could only be serviced by their manufacturers due to the complexity of the components and the curve associated with learning how to service them. Yet now, you can bring your hybrid to any shop in the neighborhood. Sound familiar? Maybe we’d do well to view construction through this comparison.
Planning is Critical
Advancing prefabrication relies on process automation, which runs on precise information. You can’t build a room’s worth of components without first knowing every inch of the space and how to account for every system component you’re putting in it.
Enter modeling programs such as building information modeling and virtual design construction. These technologies are becoming so advanced that nowadays, designers and engineers can create a nearly perfect digital twin of a building, host the models on an accessible platform and get it in front of everyone who will lay hands on the project well before breaking ground.
This kind of information (not to mention communication) drives effective prefabrication, and getting that information requires, among other valuable assets, time. It takes time to consider creative solutions, time to generate models, time to communicate them effectively, time to identify conflicts and clashes, time to revise, time to run simulations and time to evaluate them. Effective (and frequent) communication is key to account for that time.
A meeting of minds is necessary in the beginning because to effectively prefabricate, a project needs to be planned well in advance. Divisive and noncollaborative methods spell doom for these projects. Stakeholders cannot be siloed away, waiting their turn as the project advances in the traditionally defined phases.
Effective prefabrication requires phases to be approached differently, such as involving construction teams early in the design phase to confirm equipment and materials, highlight potential clashes and prevent costly mistakes.
Every building is a prototype in its own right: an improvement on previous projects, loaded with solutions to yesterday’s problems. Prefabrication, like the design and assembly of a new car model, uses a different process than traditional construction. It evolves. Yes, a learning curve is involved. Yes, when mistakes are made in prefabrication, it can be more difficult to find a remedy on-site than stick-built structures.
However, the only way forward is through; our traditional processes are hardly flawless. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to prefabrication, we expect perfection before the doing, and one error or omission is enough to taint the entire process. This immediate dismissal is startling, especially when standing next to the mounting evidence of what is possible when prefabrication is done correctly when the right conditions are found and met.
Modeling Boosts Prefab Success Rate
Effective prefabrication, especially when coupled with modeling, consistently delivers on time, quality and cost. We can’t speak to the industry, but at Harris? A decade ago, 75 percent was a normal success rate for a prefabricated project; it now hovers between 95 to 98 percent. We see this work more often, yet communicating effective execution across stakeholders remains a struggle.
That’s where modeling comes into play and why it’s necessary to reevaluate how we approach these projects’ scheduling and procurement processes.
However, it doesn’t only come down to needing more time, better communication and more faith in the process. Sometimes, a project won’t involve prefabricated solutions because there simply were not enough boots on the ground to make it happen, and that’s hardly the fault of owners.
As contractors, we need to embrace that our role goes beyond being reliable service providers and business partners. We are influencers and educators to clients and colleagues alike, and where we invest our attention matters.
We need more BIM/VDC specialists and experts in the industry, available to put in front of clients, and able to travel where the projects command. Beyond that, we need to invest heavily in cross-training so we can close the knowledge and understanding gaps between professionals. It’s hard to ask someone to trust a process they don’t fully understand or have never seen, especially when that process requires them to work so differently from the way they have for decades (with success).
Perhaps, looking back to our comparison early on in this column, it would be worthwhile to partner with peers in automotive and other high-tech manufacturing industries. They’ve faced the challenges of implementing automation and still seek improvement. Perhaps there are strategies we can draw from to smooth out wrinkles and refine our own conversations, or even enhance the way we approach training and implementation of new processes and ideas.
Either way, it’s safe to say that industrialization, prefabrication and modularization are not fads; they are the future.
Advancing technology both in planning and production will ensure we are more capable of automating things, not less, so digging our heels in at the first sign of a challenge can’t be our response. Not when we are all part of an industry famous for knuckling down and getting our hands dirty. We’re hard workers and innovators who do not shrink from challenges; we rise above, step around, and always find the way through.
If we can shift toward putting our heads together rather than retreating to our corners of the business, imagine how quickly we could cure what ails us.
Mike Nelsen is a plant manager at Harris Co. Shawn Garner is Harris Co.’s VDC senior manager.