The revolution in factory organization that transformed the world of manufacturing has never had an exact parallel in construction. Based partly on new research findings, a recent survey suggests a decisive moment is at hand for construction: productivity, safety, environmental quality, building information modeling and collaborative management can all be enhanced by or used to facilitate modular construction and prefabrication techniques.

“It's amazing to think of all the pieces coming together now to transform the construction industry,” says Harvey Bernstein, vice president of industry insights and alliances for McGraw-Hill Construction, the parent of ENR, at a Construction Users Roundtable meeting in Cincinnati on April 12.

Based on a survey of 809 contractors and designers as well as in-depth interviews with 15 owners, Bernstein's group learned that most prefabrication and modular construction is being used on health-care facilities, college buildings, factories and K-12 schools to create exterior walls, superstructures and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Owners reported using the techniques mainly on powerplants, office buildings and multi-use residential buildings.

The research was sponsored in part by the Modular Building Institute, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Island International Exterior Fabricators and Syntheon.

Why aren't owners using more prefabrication? They told the survey researchers they have the perception that fewer companies offer prefab methods and that the work is more expensive per square foot in heavily unionized markets. Further, they told the researchers that prefab and modular methods require more planning.

But the owners also identified several compelling benefits to modular and prefabrication methods. According to Bernstein, the methods fill skilled-labor gaps, limit disruption of existing business operations and provide just-in-time delivery of prefabricated components and a controlled production environment that produces better- quality building components.

Convincing more owners and architects of the value of prefabrication and modularization is the surest way to interest more contractors in it. “There are some preconceived notions it will cost more and take more time,” says Bernstein. But owners also reported savings of up to six months, he says, depending on the project.