What is that light on the horizon? Prefab.
Caitlin Dunn with Jason Barber, Manufacton
If you look at adoption numbers, prefabrication is still early in its revolution for the construction industry. From FMI/BIM Forum and Dodge SmartMarket reports, the current state of the prefab industry is explained through statistics: 42% of contractors perform prefab, but the amount of work being prefabricated is rarely more than 25%.
The benefits that we associate with prefab, however, make up some impressive numbers. Manufacton has determined that prefab can reduce waste in construction projects by up to 80%, decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 60%, shorten anticipated scheduling time between 20-50%, and reduce anticipated project costs by 20%. If there are so many positives to adopting prefab, then why aren’t we seeing a rush to use it more? It appears that the pros far outweigh the cons – indeed it seems like a bright light on the horizon.
First of all, cost has acted as a deterrent. By and large, prefab is available to a select group of contractors who have the capital to set up a shop and begin prefabrication on projects. In addition, there are issues with warehouse space, obtaining equipment, and planning constraints. Each may affect a contractor’s decision to switch to prefab. If those issues are difficult to resolve, it naturally would seem much easier to simply go the classic onsite route for construction.
Despite these issues, there are catalysts for change that are bringing prefab to the forefront of industry processes. What is the impetus for prefab these days?
- The housing crisis points to both the lack of inventory for classically-built houses and increased urbanization. People are in need of homes, but often they are unable to afford the wait time and cost of one that is built using traditional methods and timeframes.
- There is still a skilled workforce shortage – fewer workers and more work. Before the COVID-19 situation, there were fewer people in the construction industry than before the 2008 recession. At the same time, the normalized volume of construction was significantly greater in the first quarter of 2020 than just before the 2008 recession.
- The reaction to COVID-19 has affected the physicality of working on the jobsite. Social distancing, contract training, and personal protective equipment (PPE) are all more difficult on a dynamic, traditional jobsite. Conversely, in a manufacturing environment, it is much easier to conduct contact tracing, maintain social distancing, and utilize different work schedules to facilitate social distancing. Many construction workers group-commute to jobsites because they vary in location. Shops and prefab warehouses, on the other hand, are in one standard location and are therefore more reliable and easier to get to.
- Not least of all, technology is on the rise. Mobile and cloud technology have only been commercially available to construction companies for 12 years, and mobile projects and jobsites require these technologies to even function. Prefab jobsites make it much easier for communication, whether it be face-to-face or through the cloud.
Given the rise of prefabrication, what will the future look like? There is speculation that multi-trade fabrication facilities will become more and more common, with components that can be sold to GCs, projects and other contractors. Real-time coordination and communication may become the norm rather than the exception, as well. Better and safer working conditions and hours for the construction industry will be possible.
Prefabrication promises safety, quality, schedule improvements, and cost gains. We’ll have to see how long it takes to get past the roadblocks.
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