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Prefabrication: Another Alternative

In my monthly deliberations over topics that I feel will best resonate with the readership, I try to avoid redundancy whenever I can. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the continuing quandary in which my prognosticating peers find themselves repeatedly asking the same question, month after month. How can I whittle more cost from the bottom line? How can I whittle more cost from the bottom line? How can I … ? OK, you get the picture.

The causes for the irritating persistence of this maddening repetition are twofold: the equally maddening persistence of a stalled construction market coupled with the stunning discovery that a class of gifted left-brain people who have devoted themselves to our industry by daily transforming into human calculators may be somewhat lacking in the creativity department. In the name of limiting the recurrence of redundancies to stuttering parrots and scratched CDs, I offer yet another stratagem to help jump-start the intuitive right-brain capabilities of my logic-driven compatriots: Try looking into outsourcing the prefabrication of significant portions of work on projects that seem logical candidates for it.

Actually, I think the real underlying reasons for under-utilization of prefabrication on commercial drywall projects are more related to skepticism and false assumptions than to an inability to think out of the box. My own former reluctance to incorporate prefab components into my estimates stemmed from concern over added cost, and a healthy fear of surrendering any control over the prosecution of the work to an unknown entity. Upon being persuaded (cajoled and threatened) to diligently research the prospects of using prefabrications—panelized wall assemblies, light gauge metal trusses and pre-formed shapes—on a multi-story office project with its share of daunting details, my misconceptions were effectively dispelled. The apparent advantages outweighed the doubts, and my conversion was well-reasoned.

Dispel the Myths

First, I discovered that my concern over cost was unfounded—in this instance, at least, but in principle as well. A quick tour of the panel/truss plant that I was dealing with enlightened me as to why. The transfer of design drawings to the layout of templates was achieved through digital and laser technology. The work was performed by semi-skilled, factory-type workers, in a controlled atmosphere that required very little supervision. The production costs in such a controlled environment where components are electronically conceived and produced en masse by a cheap labor force can be reduced dramatically over field construction, a significant savings (even after the sub-sub markup) that can be directly calculated into bid pricing.

Part and parcel of this labor savings is the consequent risk reduction in outsourcing. Not only is burden reduced as you convert labor costs into material costs, but safety concerns and the specter of potential injury claims are eliminated from the outsourced portion of the labor. In an environment of spiraling liability and comp costs and the daunting likelihood of claims, limiting exposure by reducing labor is a welcome windfall.

Next, my reluctance to delegate large portions of work to an outsource agent was more than offset by the peace of mind I got by fixing my costs on the most sophisticated assemblies—the very ones that I had the toughest time evaluating in terms of labor. Bottom line: I effectively eliminated a big chunk of the Great Unknown in one fell swoop. As a bonus consequence, I was able to limit my project crew to manageable size, keeping all of my best guys working—those whose productions were predictable—and avoided hiring strangers. I actually gained more control over the project by farming some of it out, not less.

The Benefits

Another self-evident gain comes with the consistency of quality inherent in the prefab process. Tolerances can be reduced to the hundredth of an inch, and consistent replication translates into an aesthetically pleasing finished product. For example, each and every section in a multiple groin vault ceiling composed of pre-molded glass-fiber reinforced shapes is going to appear exactly the same as the vault adjacent to it. That’s because it is an architecturally exact duplication. Quality control can be assured by a PM with a visit to the plant during a typical run to ensure that the delivered product will meet all of the project specifications.

One more benefit that can be offered to a prospective client through prefabrication is a reduction in schedule duration. Obviously, greater amounts of work can be performed in fewer work days when the product is pre-assembled off-site, and merely needs to be installed. If time is money, and you can show potential clients a way to shave days or even weeks from a project schedule, prefabrication can be instrumental in selling a job.

Any Pitfalls?

Of course, there are potential pitfalls in outsourcing to a prefab plant, and most come in the form of omissions. But the precautions are pretty much the same as with any supplier or second-tier sub. Get a written proposal with an express list of inclusions, exclusions and clarifications (typical problematic omissions include clips, bracing, fasteners and off-loading). Be sure engineered shop drawings are included. Verify that the product will be per the bid documents, particularly the specification manual. Provide a copy of the sub-sub agreement that he/she will be expected to sign upon award of the project (which should be a pass-through of all the terms and conditions of the GC/sub contract).

And so concludes another suggestion in response to that ongoing and oft-repeated question that vexes drywall quantifiers the world over: How do I whittle more cost from the bottom line? I am perfectly comfortable in keeping with the mission suggested by the title of this column—Estimator’s Edge—even at the risk of sounding redundant. But I live for the day when I can write suggestions about what to do with all of the excessive backlog you’re getting, or how to spend that bonus you earned for record sales. Until then, try prefab outsourcing as yet another stratagem in your arsenal. And happy whittling.

Vince Bailey is a free-lance estimator and consultant who has worked for several wall and ceiling contractors.

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