Recent growth in the use of BIM and model-based processes has spawned an enormous increase in offsite and near-site prefabrication, a trend that could be transformative for the construction industry.

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According to a new SmartMarket report published by Dodge Data & Analytics, general contractors are reporting extensive use of model-driven prefabrication. Research in the report shows that:

  • 78% of contractors report its use for mechanical and plumbing systems.
  • 60% report its use for structural steel and for hangers.
  • 43% report its use for electrical, data and communications systems.

Industry leaders, such as DPR Construction, hold prefab brainstorming sessions early in projects where, instead of identifying which elements can be prefabricated, they challenge the entire project team to justify why any element can’t be prefabricated for greater efficiency, lower cost and improved safety. 

Driving this growth is the fact that we can now work directly with data from models that accurately and centrally describe the physical and functional characteristics of a project rather than being limited to manual interpretation of drawings and specs by multiple, disconnected parties. Other large industries that create complex capital assets—like aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding—have changed dramatically over the past 20 years because of similar evolutions, and construction is now poised for a far-reaching transformation in how projects are designed and put in place.

A Perfect Storm

Phil Bernstein, vice president for Strategic Industry Relations at Autodesk, describes a perfect storm of factors that will drive this change, which in addition to modeling for design, constructibility and prefabrication, includes:

  • Technologies that increasingly bridge the virtual and real worlds such as laser scanning, augmented reality and 3D printing.
  • Digital manufacturing, aka “mass customization,” which allows small quantities of high-quality, precision components and assemblies to be produced on demand.
  • Reduction in our skilled workforce, which will accelerate robotics and other forms of mechanized assembly to put these manufactured elements efficiently in place. 

Several innovative companies are currently at work on advanced approaches to design, fabrication and onsite assembly. Those include:

Project Frog (for Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth). It grew out of an awareness that too many children attend school in “portables” that were originally intended to be temporary but are now becoming permanent due to the costs and time required to build new facilities.

The multidisciplinary team has created a standard set of elements that can be combined in almost unlimited iterations to create well-designed schools that are less expensive and faster to put in place, and which can also often be green. For example, Project Frog has put in place an energy-neutral new school in Connecticut.  

The company has expanded its scope in recent years to apply a component-based approach to design and construction on other building types, including health care and data centers. The images show a completed school facility and a manufactured component used in the mechanical system for data centers.  

Aditazz (Sanskrit for “from the beginning”). This firm represents a great mash-up of talent and expertise from the architecture and construction industry, with innovation and fast-paced development skills from Silicon Valley computer microchip manufacturing. The venture-backed company initially focused specifically on the health care industry with a full-service approach to design for manufacturing on the digital Aditazz Realization Platform.

Beginning with early operational programming to define how a facility should function and support the medical care workflows it will house, the Aditazz team virtually configures an optimized design using its library of standard components, which it can manufacture in its production facilities. This end-to-end integration on the Aditazz Realization Platform allows high-quality facilities to be completed faster and at less cost, and deeply engages future users in the process.

Aditazz is also expanding its focus to more types of facilities, including schools, high-rises and commercial office buildings. A prototype hospital that won a competition sponsored by Kaiser Permanente had a number of Aditazz components in place.  

BROAD Sustainable Buildings This Chinese company grew from being an air-conditioning manufacturer to become the global leader in deploying manufactured components to create large buildings at incredible speeds. The company developed a steel structural system that can withstand a Richter 9 earthquake, but it was not garnering the industry attention company leaders  had hoped for until it leveraged another advantage of its system—the speed at which components can be erected. 

In 2010, BROAD began a series of projects in China that highlighted this advantage. The first involved building the 15-story Ark Hotel in just 48 hours. In 2011, BR finished a six-story dormitory in five days (from slab on grade) and a 30-story hotel in just 15 days (from the foundation), complete and ready for occupancy by guests. The company claims this hotel was done for less than $1,000 per square meter.

In addition to speed of delivery and seismic resistance, the company claims that the facility has exceptional thermal performance, featuring quadruple glazed windows, and through extensive filtration provides guests with air that is nine times purer than the typical outside air. A time-lapse video of this project (known as T30) is available on YouTube. It has been viewed more than 5 million times.

Several more large projects have been completed at lightning speed, with the most recent being a 57-story, mixed-use facility done in February 2015 in just 19 days (not including four days when work was halted for rain). The company says 95% of the building was prefabricated in its factory, and 1,200 workers completed the assembly in the field, progressing at an average speed of three floors per day.

Xiao Changgen, vice general manager of The BROAD Group, says, “With traditional construction methods, the building would have taken two years to complete. The company also contends that 90% of the building can be recycled at the end of its life because it uses much less concrete than typical buildings. Still in the works by BROAD Sustainable Buildings is the 220-floor Sky City in Changsua. The goal is to complete the project in 90 days from the completed foundation, but government approvals have snagged the process.

Future of Component-Based Construction

Other trends will also accelerate a shift toward the efficiency and speed of component-based buildings. One is the relentless growth of cities. According to the United Nations, the world can expect to add close to 1.5 billion urbanites in the next 15 years, and 3 billion by 2050. The buildings required to support this influx will by necessity be taller. To that point, Dan McQuade, group president of AECOM Construction Services, says of the five tallest buildings undertaken by the firm’s New York City-based Tishman Construction division, four are under construction right now.  

And they won’t be anonymous boxes. As Autodesk’s Bernstein says, “Design will be as important—if not more so—in the age of mass customization and increasingly sophisticated consumer demand.” So the buildings are likely to be highly detailed, with irregular shapes and facades composed of multiple materials, with stringent sustainability and energy-performance requirements.

Since no one expects cost and schedule pressures to do anything but increase, the successful future for contractors will mean adopting emerging technology-driven processes such as a design-for-manufacture approach to putting up component-based buildings. Bernstein believes that short-run, high-quality digital manufacturing of ever-more complex parts of buildings on demand will become standard practice in this environment. “When a computer is driving the making of a building part,” he says, “it doesn’t care if you change that part for each customer. That means the same computer-controlled building assembler will make what you want for no additional cost.”

As construction sites become assembly sites and more work shifts to factory settings, all the familiar aspects of estimating, procurement scheduling, logistics planning and productivity management will be turned on their heads. New players will enter the arena, non-traditional alliances will be formed, education and training will adapt to provide the right kinds of workers, and new types of agreements will be developed to support this next-generation way of delivering projects. It’s a promising future for those companies willing to embrace transformational change.