By: Charles A. Visser, PE at Bernhard
It’s no secret that over the last 20 years we have seen a significant increase in the usage and dependency on technology. The access to information and ease in which we can communicate has revolutionized most businesses. It has also created an environment where people expect immediate results. The construction industry is no different, we see an increasing demand for projects to be delivered quicker and with less risk.
One solution: build a better product out of sequence and away from the constraints of the project site. It sounds too easy, right? Fortunately, the same technological advances that created the new expectations has provided us a path to a solution. Through extensive collaboration, information sharing, and willingness to make timely decisions, prefabrication and modular construction strategies become viable solutions to the common drivers of safety, quality, speed, and risk.
It is important to note that we define prefabrication as the off-site construction of building system components in a manufacturing environment. Prefabricated building system components can be combined to create larger modular building assemblies.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” Benjamin Franklin
A successful off-site construction plan needs a vision. Work with project stakeholders and answer a few basic questions.
- What safety aspects of the project can be improved by off-site construction?
- How can building systems be routed to optimize long term maintenance?
- Are there any trades that will have a difficult time getting quality field labor?
- What repetitive activities can be completed away from the project site?
Opportunities for prefabrication can range from pre-assembling plumbing rough-in for bathroom groups, building pump and equipment skids, horizontal utility distribution, and complete central utility plants. Multi-trade assemblies can be manufactured by grouping multiple building sub-system components together into a single “module”.
The fabrication vision and list of potential opportunities will assist in guiding the project’s key stakeholders, including the design team, in the process. This up-front effort of planning and coordination for off-site manufacturing means engineers and designers can more easily incorporate prefabricating concepts and components into the design. Alternative project delivery methods, like design-assist and design-build, unite the design and construction team members earlier in the process and help achieve complete buy-in.
“In every situation, ideation is necessary, but decision is mandatory.” Chris Knutson
With limited availability of skilled labor, prefabrication allows construction teams to be more productive and deliver better results. Manufacturing multi-trade assemblies for use in a hospital corridor, for example, means a handful of on-site field staff can install thousands of feet of mechanical, plumbing and electrical distribution in a single work day.
The results can be extraordinary, however, no matter what your prefabrication vision is, and how much planning you do, it will be difficult to be successful without timely decision making. The timeliness of making a decision can easily outweigh the importance of how good the decision is for the project. Understand all of the activities that need to take place in order to deliver the manufactured product to the project site in time for installation. Instead of creating a schedule with only activities shown, try creating a milestone schedule that lists all of the key decisions and dates they need to be made by. It is a simple solution but can help keep the team on track and realize success.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller
Executing a successful off-site construction plan needs a strong team. Partners who have the soft skills to effectively share the vision, work collaboratively and plan extensively will play a vital role. Another important attribute, that isn’t obvious and can be difficult to measure, is a trade partner’s ability to problem solve. Diverse experience and perspective naturally challenges conventional practices to produce innovation. The versatility and strength of the project team is crucial to executing a successful off-site construction plan.
The most important hard skills include fabrication experience, building information modeling (BIM) and overall construction intelligence. BIM software has become a common platform that teams leverage to communicate and document prefabrication concepts. A diverse team that possesses these skills along with the soft skills mentioned have the tools to be successful.
“Before the reward there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy.” Ralph Ransom
Prefabrication and manufacturing have the ability to move a significant percentage of the labor activities off-site. Fabricating components off-site reduces the number of tasks that must be completed on the construction site. This reduces the pressure on finding skilled workers in an ever-changing economy.
Additionally, prefabrication enhances job-site safety and quality control for crew members. The modules are designed to be more compact and delivered to the job site with everything needed for installation. This significantly reduces overhead tasks, eliminates daily mobilization and de-mobilization activities, and reduces the number of on-site materials and equipment needed for installation. Less work completed in the field means lower risk of injury and a safer job site overall.
For mechanical construction, starting the scope of work earlier in the project means it can be completed out of sequence compared to traditional, linear project delivery. This results in earlier completion dates and increased flexibility in the project schedule.
Prefabrication and modular construction strategies are becoming more popular and can significantly improve a project’s outcome. Establishing a clear vision, leveraging timely decision making, and building partnerships will help ensure success. How much of your next project will consist of prefabricated components?
About the author
Charles (Chuck) Visser has more than 20 years of experience in engineering design, pre-construction, and construction. Currently an Executive Vice President at Bernhard, Chuck has managed pre-construction and engineering for several large-scale projects in hospitality, healthcare, higher education, and commercial sectors. He specializes in design-assist and design-build delivery, working collaboratively across project stakeholders to deliver the best possible solution for the customer. Chuck is a registered Professional Engineer and brings exemplary leadership and technical expertise to his role at Bernhard.