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Prefabrication: Have You Jumped on the Bandwagon?

Prefabrication doesn’t have to be hard. Just get involved early.

Have you jumped on the prefabrication bandwagon? Today’s labor-constrained construction environment and the opportunities available in manufacturing walls, floors and ceilings suggest you should.
“Componentized construction, as I call it, is growing,” says Dan Wies, president of Wies Offsite and its parent company, Wies Drywall & Construction Corp. in Missouri. “This bandwagon is on quite a roll. We have the drummer beating the beat, and the rest of the band will soon be joining in.”
And it’s a catchy beat indeed. Developers and general contractors now run their own prefab shops. European firms, experienced in the business, have set up U.S. operations. (See the sidebar, “Industrialized Construction Ramps Up.”) And sources say the built environment is pushing, even demanding, that more subcontractors bring industrialized construction options to the table.
“It’s part of the interview process for projects,” says Travis Vap, AWCI’s 2022–2023 president and president of South Valley Drywall, Inc. and South Valley Prefab, a finished exterior wall panel fabricator, both based in Colorado. “The wall and ceiling contractor must present all the elements that they can prefab off-site just to qualify for work.”
So, what are you going to do? Prefabrication is an investment. But, as we shall see, it represents a growing opportunity.
Is there an easy way to get started? Does one need to build complex exterior wall panels from the get-go? And will the codes and standards that govern off-site construction complicate the business or help foster growth? Let’s find out.

Easy Ways to Get Started

The 2019 Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry paper, “Prefabrication in the Wall and Ceiling Industry: Trends, Strategies, Outlook and Recom-mendations,” remains a relevant guide to getting started in the prefabrication business, sources say.
According to the paper, a full-scale penalization business is a “feast or famine proposition” that requires a thorough understanding of manufacturing processes, a steady supply of customers and, often, a large dollar investment to make it work.
But when it’s done correctly, “prefabrication can generate 20% to 25% increased productivity for the same footage of field-built assemblies,” noted Mark Nabity, president, Grayhawk, LLC, in Kentucky, whose company has been panelizing for four decades.
“I can produce with seven or eight men in my shop what I can do with 10 men in the field,” Nabity says.
Such figures are appealing to building owners, designers and contractors, and they substantiate why prefabrication is growing. But is there an easy way to get started?
Wies says his first wall panels came off the Wies Offsite shop floor two years ago. His company has two cold-formed steel roll-forming machines, and with them he has experienced steady growth in sales and customers.
“We’re getting to the point where we run our machines every day,” Wies says. “When we first started, it was maybe a day a week, or two days a week, or by the job. But it’s every day now.”
To jump into prefabrication, Wies suggests contractors try incorporating into their workflows one of the following prefabrication techniques:

  1. Order multiple precut lengths of metal studs, which generally will not require warehousing of the product but can be shipped directly to the job site.
  2. Start kitting materials, since you generally know, after the submittal process, what wall and ceiling parts and pieces to use on a project, including the screws, pins, safety equipment and tools.
  3. Start modeling, which may be a hill to climb for a specialty contractor but one that can be reached affordably using freelance modelers and small design firms.
  4. Prebuild soffit components—an easy step if you have accurate field measurements.
  5. Start blocking, either by ordering steel cut to length (to minimize cutting on site) or by using routers and chop saws in your warehouse to cut dimensional lumber.
  6. Order precut drywall, or precut drywall to length yourself in a shop, which will help save time.

Not sure where to start? Wies, who has been researching manufacturing for 10 to 15 years, suggests starting with 1 or 6.
“I would start ordering pre-cut stuff, which a lot of people do,” Wies says. “That’s geared toward the smaller contractor who is just beginning to think about prefabrication.”
Some wall and ceiling companies invest in modest 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot facilities, Wies says. They have minimal lay-down areas and basic worktables, but it’s enough to begin building and shipping just-in-time components to projects, he says.
“I see a lot of people buying roll-forming machines—and not just the drywall contractors but also developers and others too,” Wies says. “But I don’t advise people to just go and buy a roll-forming machine unless they have a lot of work. This can be a difficult business.”

Making Prefab Work

The key to successful prefabrication—also known as “industrialized construction”—is having replicable building elements. You want to be able to build components over and over, which economizes resources, provides superior quality control and helps turn a profit. But where—in which sectors—do you find opportunity to replicate building systems?
“While it depends on your product type,” says Vap, “you’ll find success in pretty much any mid-rise or high-rise construction sector—mixed-use multifamily, health care, office spaces, they all fall within this realm.”
A wall and ceiling contractor could launch an operation to produce fully finished exterior panels, like South Valley Prefab. Or they could produce frame-only panel products. Or they might build backup panels, which have both the framing and the sheathing. Any of these panel types “can open up a lot of avenues,” Vap says, in one- and two-story, mid-rise and high-rise market sectors.

Industrialized Construction Ramps Up

The following news releases excerpts show how industrialized construction is gaining steam in the United States.

Mortenson Joint Venture. Mortenson, a builder, developer and engineering services provider, and its joint venture partner Pinnacle Partners, have broken ground on a $120 million prefabricated multifamily project called Revival on Platte in Denver.

The joint venture will use BLUVera, a panel manufacturer and affiliate of Mortenson, to prefabricate components off-site. The entire structure will be built with a cold-formed steel structural system, which includes the interior and exterior walls, the Mortenson news release says.

Admares Robotic Manufacturing. Finland-based Admares, an industrialized manufacturer of buildings and homes, plans to invest $750 million to open its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Waycross, Ga., according to a company news release.

The 2.5-million-square-foot mega factory will focus its production on the housing sector, with operations expected to begin in late 2025. The company’s CEO says its robotic-driven manufacturing process “allows entire buildings” to be “manufactured in a factory.”

Success comes down to what Vap calls “the time frame of repeatability.” Typically, a building has a first-floor podium and a top floor that are unique. The structures in between the top and bottom floors tend to repeat. Those middle floors make the case for prefabrication, so long as the repeatable structures can be speedily designed. The “the time frame of repeatability,” Vap says, rests with the design process. “The bottleneck is the designer,” he says frankly.
For example, a job with 300 panels, and each unique, would require a lot of design input, a lengthy design process and not much repeatability in the building components. But if the panels could be designed to have the same basic shape or use the same framing components, and if the panels all have the same applied finish, then you have a true prefabrication opportunity. The more varied the panel shapes, sizes and finishes, the more design input will be required. This is why the panel fabricator needs to get involved early with the project design team—to influence the design.
“More design time is bad when you do prefabrication,” Vap says. “More time means you’re not getting repeatability.”
In theory, many K-12 school projects have lots of repeatable, panelizeable exterior walls. They should be the perfect candidates for prefabrication. However, K-12 school projects tend to use a design-bid-build delivery process. That process has the wall contractor bidding the work after the designs are completed. It’s too late to make major modifications in the walls and get value out of prefabricating the job.
But, if the firm is hired as part of the design team, before the K-12 school designs are finalized, then they could move windows, adjust dimensions and make the wall panel designs repeatable.
“That’s why repeatability is typical in not so much with schools but with mid-rise and high-rise construction,” Vap says. “The owners of those spaces understand the value of prefabrication. They’re already buying our products.”

Controversy over ICC G6-202X

Will the codes and standards that govern off-site construction complicate things, or will they foster growth in the marketplace? That remains to be seen. But the International Code Council has drafted a guideline for off-site construction, and the initial read of the document has the wall and ceiling trade concerned. It’s called “ICC G6-202X, Guideline on Advanced Panelization” or G6 for short. What is G6, and what does the ICC mean by the term “advanced panelization”?
The ICC launched development of G6 in February 2023. The public comment period for G6 closed Aug. 28. G6 is intended to provide specific requirements used in the evaluation of “advanced” panelized systems—“advanced” meaning panels that are completely enclosed on all sides.
Unfortunately, the language in G6 could suggest to jurisdictions and their inspectors that G6 applies to all panel systems, not just enclosed panels like those found on a modular home.
AWCI and other industry groups have voiced strong concerns. The process for “advanced panelization” outlined in G6 could easily create more confusion as to how closed wall panels are treated from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. AWCI members are also concerned that G6 might restrict the opportunities to use automation and apply more finish types in the production of prefabricated exterior panels. In other words, G6 appears to be unnecessarily restrictive.
“The scope of G6 shouldn’t include an open panel,” says Don Allen, AWCI’s director of technical services. “If a panel is just studs, or if it’s finished on just one side, then an inspector can look inside the panel. The guideline shouldn’t apply in that case.”
According to the August 2023 issue of AWCI’s Codes & Standards Digest, AWCI has four specific concerns regarding ICC G6:

  1. The guidelines were not developed in a public forum.
  2. Panelizers were not well represented on the task group that drafted the document.
  3. The guidelines will be used on open panels and not just for advanced panelization products.
  4. The definition of advanced panelization can be easily construed to cover partially finished open panels.

Many AWCI members wonder about the point of G6. “What problem is this document trying to solve?” they are often heard to say, Allen says.
It seems unnecessary and inappropriate for the G6 definition of “advanced panelization” to apply to finished exterior panels. After all, one side of a finished panel remains open or “naked” for inspection.
And there’s also no point to G6’s “advanced panelization” term applying to finished panels. While a water-resistive barrier or other drainage plane elements may not be visible, this point is not known to be a problem among inspectors.
Thus, AWCI seeks to limit the scope of ICC G6 to avert confusion. AWCI’s Codes & Standards Digest says the goal is “to exclude open panels [from G6] and to permit approval by an authority having jurisdiction for non-modularized advanced panelization.”
“Our position is that G6 is negative for the industry,” Vap says. “They’re trying to unify all types of prefabrication—off-site, modular, everything—like the way it’s done with modular homes. But the walls on a modular home are all sealed up. That’s totally different from a bathroom pod, a frame-only panel or a finished exterior wall panel, but ICC is trying to lump them all together. It’s not in the best interests of moving prefabrication ahead, in my opinion. You would be hindering innovation.”
Though codes and standards certainly must be met when building prefabricated products, AWCI hopes to keep paving the way for members to jump on the prefabrication bandwagon. AWCI’s Codes & Standards Digest says AWCI will keep its members apprised of the status of G6 as time moves on.

Eye on Opportunity

Sources contacted for this article all say stick building is not going away. It would be impractical to prefabricate everything in construction.
Even so, the same sources say that the opportunities in prefabrication will only continue to grow.
“If you’re a longtime contractor, and you don’t currently do prefabrication and you don’t want to mess with it, that doesn’t mean you won’t find work,” Vap says. “But the reality is your market will shrink. You will have different opportunities than those investing in prefabrication, but they’ll have more opportunities.”

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. You can reach him on Linkedin.

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