Prefabrication: Has the Future Arrived?
Ulf Wolf / October 2019
Prefabrication: The practice of making and assembling various components of a building’s structure in a factory or other manufacturing site, and then transporting complete assemblies or sub-assemblies to the construction site where the structure is to be located.
Panelization: The technique of using an off-site manufacturing facility to build walls, floors and ceilings in a highly controlled environment. Once the modular sections are completed, they are hauled to the construction site for installation.
Often-mentioned advantages of these techniques are increased productivity, enhanced and simplified onsite logistics, less risk of theft and vandalism, and better protection from weather damage. Other advantages are decreased material waste and less disruption to the surrounding environment.
The one drawback most often mentioned is transportation costs, especially if the fabrication area is located some distance from the construction site.
That said, how do AWCI member contractors fare in this environment?
How involved in prefabrication are our members?
“For the last 10 years,” says Richard Wagner, owner of RWE – Richard Wagner Enterprises, LLC in North Carolina, “our shop has prefabricated box headers, jamb openings, bearing posts for point loads and mansard framing members. We have also built shop jigs for many profiles over the years and it has always brought us further and faster in the field.”
“We are very involved,” reports Mike Heering, director at F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, “and now have two dedicated prefabrication shops. Currently, six projects are underway for which we are making panels or that are in the panel engineering phase.”
As for Scott Bleich, principal at Heartland in Iowa, “We are currently prefabricating exterior wall panels for a large addition to an existing building on Iowa State University campus. We are also fabricating drywall shapes with our drywall routing equipment.”
Adam Barbee, estimator/project manager at Daley’s Drywall in California, reports that his company is very involved, and “for us, prefabrication is a very pertinent consideration both in bidding and project planning. Our goal is to order the erector set prefabricated to the max, which will save on both time and labor.”
“California Drywall has embraced prefabricated construction,” shares Greg Eckstrom, vice president at California Drywall in San Jose. “We have a prefab division and dedicated shop-space that produces prefabricated drywall shapes and assemblies as well as prefabricated cold-formed steel-framing components and assemblies.
“With architectural and structural plans in hand, our prefab team, in-house engineers, project managers and foremen look for opportunities to prefabricate components and assemblies for a project.
“By identifying components or assemblies from the start, we increase productivity and quality, and we save on labor while improving safety and minimizing waste.
“The prefab metal components we produce currently include headers, jambs, wall-end conditions, mullion conditions, soffits, bathroom kits, wall panels, mounting brackets, clips, backing, panels and radius products.
“Our pre-formed drywall shapes include soffits, duct caps, column wraps, inside and outside corners, light coves and troughs, drape pockets, knife edges, door headers, castle cuts, office fronts, window channels, window returns, single and multi-step details, five-sided boxes, door and window reveals, and floating end caps.”
Some, however, like Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, aren’t seeing too much prefab.
Then there is John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California’s Bay Area, who says, “I am not involved at all and I have no desire to be.”
But some are beginning to test the waters.
Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, shares that they are “on the cusp of entering the panelized curtainwall business and have completed one such project to date.”
In Ohio, Joel Chambers, vice president of sales at J&B Acoustical, Inc., says, “We are a Sto Panel Affiliate and are just wrapping up our first job as such. We have always had the ability to prefab walls and have done so on many jobs in the past.”
James Kruse, president of Copper Spring Solutions, LLC in Colorado, sees prefab “only in the roof truss sector. We install and build some small panels in our shop, but we don’t do any mass prefabrication.”
The Consultant’s Viewpoint
Charles Antone, owner/consultant at Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island, shares his view of the future.
“The cost and schedule advantages of systemization and panelized external systems is the way of the future, and most importantly, it also solves the labor shortage.
“A few caveats though. Let’s look at an amazing prefabber: IKEA. Their industrial engineers create a systematized dresser in such a way that it can then be assembled by just about anyone. In the past, to make a dresser (from scratch) you had to be a skilled cabinet maker. Now you can get that dresser put together using unskilled labor.
“However, much will come down to how good the installation manuals are, and those written by engineers can sometimes be a challenge. They need to be written by good writers (IKEA has that down) who also understand the technology—that will allow the average Joe to receive the package that says, ‘Content: One office building—This side up—Some assembly required,’ take out his tools and put it together.
“With systematization, you don’t need highly skilled labor for installation, and you need fewer guys, five versus 20 in some cases—that is a huge factor.
“However, and this is hugely important, all installation problems have to be worked out—perhaps even tested, the way a newly designed car is tested in software even before a prototype is built—early in the design phase. BIM is an obvious solution.”
And a word from Robert Sutton, owner of Sutton Inspection & Consulting, LLC, a Texas consultant, “If prefabrication is truly the future of the construction industry, and I believe it is, proper training of labor in the facility must be addressed.
“Also, effective quality control programs are equally important and a must for contractors and manufacturers alike to ensure success. QC should be one of the first items implemented, long before production starts.”
Turgeon may not be involved, but he’d like to be. Why? “Because I believe we could do more work with less labor,” he says.
Shares Chambers, “The market for panelization in our area has been challenging at times, but the architects/designers are starting to see the big picture and the benefits that prefab offers.”
“We are involved,” says Wagner, “and plan to stay involved as the industry continues to trend that way. We would like to offer full wall-panel systems to our customers, but we are not planning to open a prefab shop.”
Heering says, “We would like to see more prefabricated jobs where we can better schedule needed manpower—enough projects to let us run the shops full-time without having to shut down and wait for the next project to come on line. That would be more labor- and shop-efficient.”
Says Bleich, “We would love to be even more involved as it’s one of our top initiatives moving forward for our company.
“We are planning to increase the use of prefabricated components and assemblies,” says Eckstrom, “and are constantly analyzing how we can improve what we are doing while looking at new tools and technologies that can help us.”
Pros and Cons
What are the advantages and disadvantages of prefabrication?
“Pros,” says Chambers, “are that on-site time is dramatically reduced, there is better environmental control during fabrication, and the number of skilled laborers needed is reduced drastically.
“As for cons, the upfront cost difference is tough for owners to swallow, although that pendulum is swinging back the other way. Presentation is the key to selling this technology: As long as they are made aware of the benefit, financial or otherwise, up front, then you have a better success rate.
“Also, the sooner we are involved in planning the project, the better. That’ll handle most cons.”
Kruse says one pro is that “it enables schedule fluidity. We can build the panels and have them sitting in our yard ready for install.” But cons are “shipping and work-accuracy of other trades before us. There is also the issue of drawings changing all the time, so keeping accurate and up-to-date drawings is crucial.”
“Prefab works well,” says Mike Miller, president of Miller Drywall, Inc. in Missouri, “but it has to be well engineered, and dimensions are very unforgiving if not followed precisely.”
Wagner says a pro is that “when you hit the job, you look like you accomplish far more quicker, and customers love that. Then he points out a big con: “Construction is an imperfect art: Try setting prefab on a slab that is not level or square. Some may say, ‘Who notices a quarter or a half an inch?’ Well, we do!”
Suggests Kirk, “The pros are increased production; it can be done off-site and cheaper. The cons are that because it can now be done cheaper, there is a race to the lowest bid. Also, when theory meets reality and the dimensions it was built to fit during prefabbing don’t mesh with the actual site measurements—huge problem.”
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York City, says, “Pros are labor savings, quality improvements, schedule enhancement and that we can work multiple steps simultaneously. A con for me is that there are limited prefab applications in my vertical New York City world.”
Aird’s take is that “prefab and modularization speed up the construction cycle and—if properly pursued—improve construction quality and safety. Prefab also significantly diminishes the waste of materials, compared to cut and fitted in the field.
“A con is that prefab requires buy-in by owners and designers and the fabricator early in the design process.”
“The pros of prefab,” says Heering, “are being able to use labor that does not need to know all the detail work that on-site construction demands. We can then use our skilled workforce to place the prefab panels and make sure that things are structurally sound and to job-specifications. All this while we are able to train the new guys in the shop more easily because their job is of a more repetitive nature.”
“Cons,” he says, “might be that some jobs that could have been prefabbed cannot be due to the timing of the design versus the construction schedule. However, our industry is slowly starting to see the value of prefabrication and that they must start thinking about it prior to the final design.”
Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, says, “On paper we can make anything work, but site conditions do not always conform to paper requirements. So the design must allow for expansion or shrinkage and allow for conditions that do not comply with design expectations and dimensions.”
“There are numerous pros,” says Bleich. “Limited exposures to workers’ comp claims, limited exposures to inclement weather, better quality control, limited jobsite congestion and more precise scheduling. The cons are few, the main one being getting the entire design and construction team to buy in to the prefab process up front. Prefab is less likely to be accepted post-project award. We need to be engaged early on, and the value that prefab can bring needs to be recognized by all players early in the process.”
Says Barbee, “Pros are the labor (labor generally is 60 percent of our cost) and the dollars you save on that. Cons are that you lose part of the human aspect involved in craftsmanship. The more prefab, the more we lose knowledge of how to do it ourselves. A good example is prefabricated food (this is starting to boom). Will some ever learn how to actually cook?”
Eckstrom elaborates, “These are the pros:
“(a) improved safety—prefabrication reduces the risk of job-site injuries;
“(b) eased manpower shortage—prefab is one solution that helps minimize the impact of the manpower shortage the construction industry faces today;
“(c) increased productivity—working at the construction site often involves extensive movement between installation sites and frequent trips for materials, while prefabrication crews complete their assemblies in a controlled environment with a manufacturing mindset;
“(d) faster build—prefabrication allows multiple activities to be performed concurrently where the same activities were previously required start-to-finish relationships on-site and just-in-time delivery—also, rapid installation of prefabricated assemblies translates into schedule gains;
“(e) reduced congestion—overall labor hours may not be significantly reduced through prefabrication; however, a significant number of those hours are now off-site, which reduces the number of on-site workers, which in turn reduces the overall demand for site resources;
“(f) enhanced quality—since prefabricated construction occurs in a controlled, well-lit, clean, manufacturing environment and follows a standardized material-and-assembly process, assemblies are built to a uniform quality;
“(g) minimized waste—traditional construction methods require extra materials that lead to increased waste while prefabricated assemblies are produced to exact lengths, sizes and in correct amounts, resulting in minimal waste.
“As for cons, it can be a challenge to get upfront buy-in from employees, GCs and architects. Prefab is a significant change and one that takes time to adapt to.”
Scott Robinson, director of public affairs at EIFS Industry Members Association in Virginia, says that with today’s labor challenges, prefab can be done with fewer workers. That’s a pro. Another advantage is that “it allows work to be done in a contained area and then moved to the job site, which helps where the construction site is already tight,” he says.
“As for cons, my take is that some prefabrication could have higher transportation costs. This is probably based on where the work is being done. That said, there are other costs you’re probably saving on, so this should not become an issue.”
Shares Robinson, “Being so close to the EIFS industry, I see positive things there over the next 10 years. I’ve never met a group of people so focused on finding solutions to construction challenges. Advances in technology will probably only further this trend. Whether it’s new forms of construction, new ways to deal with labor challenges, or advances in computer modeling, things look bright.”
Granted, prefabrication has been around for a while, but only recently has it begun getting recognition. What other technological advances will be made in our industry 10 years from now?
“I think the prefab part of the industry will get even stronger over the next 10 years,” says Turgeon. “It seems like, technology-wise, new gadgets pop up all the time, and I see that continuing.”
Chambers says, “Looking back, it is interesting to see the big technology breaks: from laser levels, cordless tools, total-job layout stations, BIM and now the surge in panelization, technology is moving at a much faster rate than in years past, and I think it is safe to say that the industry will continue to streamline its processes moving forward.
“With today’s younger generation and their interest in technology, we may start seeing what could be considered a hybrid worker—one with both the technological skills as well as hands-on knowledge that we desperately need in this market. Skilled trades people are becoming harder and harder to find, train and retain.”
Says Kruse, “I know they are working on robots, but I don’t know how feasible that is. I think we will always rely on human capital.”
Miller concurs: “I read about robots doing our work but don’t see that ever happening. The technology has come a long way, but hard work is always going to be in demand. Getting young people to get off their phones and grow up and do some work and make something of themselves will remain a challenge.”
Kirk anticipates that “cordless tools and their batteries will have developed so far that corded tools are rare and that battery run times will be in days rather than hours. And I think fast-charging technology will develop to the point that the batteries can be charged very quickly.”
Zaretzky sees “steady advances with more 3D printing machines, all on a common design platform that, hopefully, incorporates estimating—including pricing.”
Aird says, “Prefab will increase as a percentage of construction. The technology was well established decades ago but has yet to be fully embraced.”
Heering envisions “an industry where almost all phases of construction will be prefabricated in some form. There will always be some on-site construction, but once the foundation and structural steel is in place, many things will be prefabbed and ready to be placed.”
Harrington agrees: “Housing can and will be built in factories, the only thing that cannot be entirely factory-built is commercial buildings. Still, we need to accept that in 10 to 12 years, 45 percent of all jobs now done by people will be done by machines.”
“If the past 10 years are any reflection,” says Bleich, “then the advances over the next 10 years will be near immeasurable.”
“Technology will expand explosively,” says Barbee.
Eckstrom agrees: “We’ll see technology evolving rapidly and having a huge impact on our industry. It will benefit some hugely and likely put others out of business.”
Finally we asked, Where do you see our industry’s financial health 10 years from now?
Suggests Chambers, “As always, there will be ebbs and flows. The industry has held steady for some time now and—fingers crossed—will continue to do so, especially with the introduction of great technology such as prefab.”
Kruse says, “I keep expecting there to be a slump, but it hasn’t happened. While balancing rising labor costs and increased competition, I think we will remain stable. The one issue that might impact financial health is the growing shortage of labor at affordable prices.”
Adds Miller, “I think it would be great if contractors would bid jobs to make a profit instead of buying jobs. They hurt themselves and other contractors doing that.”
Wagner sees, “The cost of steel and wood continue to battle for the top spot but if America would get more steel plants back online, we will dominate the world market.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” says Zaretzky, “but as a mid-size fish in a really big pond I know that renovation will always continue to be part of daily life in New York City.”
Roger Olson, president of Sig Olson & Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota, believes that “we will continue to be a very busy industry, and there will be few changes, at least within the trowel trades. Folks will always be willing to pay top dollar for quality craftsmanship.
“Contracting costs, however, will continue to rise, with insurance costs being the main culprit, and, because of that, the phrase ‘go big or go home’ will apply more than ever in 10 years.”
Anticipates Aird, “As new construction sees smaller numbers, restoration of the existing building stock that might be architecturally outdated or energy inefficient is increasing. Many of these buildings have ‘good bones’ and can be restored for less than razing and disposing of the existing and starting from scratch. Also, the population continues to increase, and the need for housing and jobs will increase along with that.”
“My best guess,” says Bleich, “is that it will remain on solid footing. That said, we as an industry need to embrace prefabrication, technology and our workforce.”
“I think the industry will slow down a little,” says Barbee. “But even with the downturns that always happen, technology’s heart will always provide a strong background beat.”
Quips Arrington, “My uncle told me in 1968: ‘We never have enough time and money to do it correctly in first place, but we always seem to have enough money and time to do it over.’ Now, we get paid to do the work well, one time—to remove and re-work it is a killer, especially considering that almost 20 percent of all commercial work is, in fact, re-work.
“Bottom line: Do it once, correctly, and you will double your profit.”
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.
This is my last article for AWCI’s Construction Dimensions. It has been a pleasure working with and writing for you all these years. I am now passing the article-writing torch on to a very good friend of mine and a great colleague at Words & Images, David Phillips. You can expect to hear from him in the near future.
And as for the future, let me leave you with this suggestion: Buy and read this amazing book by (another Swede) Hans Rosling—“Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.”
It will make not only your day.