The Power of Prefabrication

In today’s market, delivering projects on time and within budget is as important as ever. But architects, engineers and contractors also need to maintain a high level of quality control at every level of project development. This is especially important as building systems become more complex, material costs rise, access to skilled and unskilled labor in emerging and established markets improves, and demands for sustainability increase.

Developing design solutions for clients that can be constructed and assembled quickly, perform over the lifetime of the project, reduce maintenance costs and have higher standards of quality control is not easy, however. Everyone faces growing pressures to deliver more complex buildings under tight schedules and tighter budgets. Prefabrication can help address many of these challenges that face decision makers and their projects. So, has its time finally arrived?

Prefabrication in architecture has a long history of pushing the design and construction industry forward. However, as an industry wide practice, prefabrication is still very much a niche application or solution. The use of prefabrication in the residential and smaller scale commercial applications, where modular buildings and building components can easily be transported and installed, has grown exponentially over the last ten years. Books like “Prefabricating Architecture” have began to discuss how the idea of prefabrication is changing. Large retailers like Crate & Barrel are using these techniques to increase the speed and quality of construction of their new stores. Such growth has been mainly attributed to the increased capabilities of rapid prototyping and mass-customization of building components.

photo: dorena-wm

Prefabricated components like unitized curtain wall systems, factory fabricated building modules with integrated components, or panelized skin systems can help project teams deliver projects on time, within budget, and at a high level of quality control. Advances in mass customization and decreasing costs of developing one-off custom solutions enable clients and architects seeking unique design solutions to work with both contractors and fabricators early on to design and develop a prefabricated custom solution.

photo: seier+seier

As the prefabrication of building systems and components continues to advance and improve, project teams will be able to increasingly deliver high quality design and construction to their clients. The key for project teams is to identify what aspects of a project can best be delivered through prefabrication or traditional site-built methods. The capacity for manufacturers to deliver controlled quality building components that can be assembled in a quick time frame means that project teams can expedite the building process, leading to faster erection times. Neenan recently used componentized construction to reduce the construction of the Club Commons II employee housing project by 4-5 months. Therefore, not only can prefabricated building envelopes reduce construction time and labor costs, but they can also achieve higher energy efficiency envelopes, leading to lower lifecycle costs.  As a result, Neenan is also looking at prefabrication options for use in the design and construction of their medical, commercial, and education projects.

These benefits can offset the initial up-front costs of prefabrication, often making it superior to site-built methods that are labor intensive and face the quality control and coordination issues that plague many projects. As with each project, prefabrication should be quantified to determine if the project team and client can benefit from this ever-evolving method of construction. As previous projects illustrate, by capitalizing on the latest methodologies, prefabrication can be an excellent component of effective and efficient project delivery. What components would you consider sourcing prefabricated for your project?

William G. Petersen

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