One Solution to the Workforce Shortage

Mark L. Johnson / April 2016

The current manpower shortage is driving change. One change is the spread of prefabricated building component shops.
    
With fewer numbers of workers available, some wall and ceiling contractors find they have an imposed limit on the amount of work they can do. So, some are taking work literally in-house by setting up wall panel factories. A carpenter standing flat-footed on a shop floor and working on tables 3 or 4 feet from the deck can produce more wall panels and work faster than a carpenter swinging 20 stories in the air.
    
“If I have four men on two swings on the end of a building, they’ll be there for two months doing air/water barrier, bead board, mesh, basecoat and finish,” says a wall and ceiling contractor. “We can finish that wall in three days with panels.”

Been Here Before
Fabrication plants are popping up throughout the United States, but I hear especially in the Mid Atlantic region and down through the Southern states. Some of these shops build interior cold-formed steel load-bearing panels. Others create panelized, turnkey exterior insulation and finish systems. Some wall and ceiling contractors are partnering with component manufacturers and forming joint ventures to market these systems. Others have allied with structural engineers in consortiums that include a variety of affiliate members. All want to find ways to take on more work with thinner crews.
    
Actually, prefabricating walls and ceilings brings many benefits. Prefabrication speeds up the erection process for a building. The interior trades get going faster. In many cases, the GC roofs the building over while concrete is still being poured on the upper floors. In the end, the owner gets his building sooner. He cycles more quickly to selling and leasing his units and collecting cash from them.
    
The market for prefabricated panel systems has been big before. In the past, some fabricators expanded beyond basic panel systems to include truss production. Others provided entire floor systems—pouring slabs on grade, adding pan decking and setting pre-fabricated interior panels—one floor after another.
    
“You can go up four or five stories this way,” a wall contractor says.
    
Prefab sales can hum along, so long as the panelization is engineered early in the design process. That means giving lots of attention to the work of designers and architects.
    
“If we can show them a viable alternative to massive concrete structures with 80 pounds a square foot precast exteriors then, yes, such structures can be designed to accommodate panels,” a wall contractor says. “But if the precast has already been awarded, you’re out of the picture.”
    
But there are exceptions. One wall contractor had a job in Virginia last spring. The project had already been designed, but he pitched his panels nevertheless. He priced it, and that’s where he became competitive. The panels cost only slightly less than the precast material itself, but the true savings came when factoring in the cost of a building with a greatly reduced structural mass. The weight of steel stud sheathing with EIFS is only 7 or 8 pounds per square foot versus 70 or 80 pounds a square foot for precast, my source said. Even the footers of this structure would be significantly less massive in the end. This is why he won the bid, and the owner changed to accommodate a new design.
    
The higher the building, the better the market for prefabricated exterior panels. A one- or two-story building might have six different panel configurations, but a high-rise may have only one panel configuration that’s replicated 100 times over. Repeats are cheaper than one-offs.

Who’s on Board?
Who’s the target market for prefabricated building component sales? Architects and the design community. But, there’s a problem.
    
“We can walk in their door, but we can’t sell them our panels,” one contractor says. “We need to get them comfortable with panels and show them they work, show them they’re economical, show them they diminish the construction schedule and the construction mortgage.”
    
In other words, we need some marketing ideas.

Mark L. Johnson, an industry marketing consultant, who writes regularly about wall and ceiling construction. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.