If automobile manufacturers can create high-quality products on a large scale in a factory, why can’t builders implement the same technology and processes? That’s a central argument among proponents of permanent modular construction, as they tout its potential for time and cost savings. However, in the notoriously slow-to-evolve building industry, prefab has struggled to gain a larger share of the market.
In an effort to draw more attention to permanent modular construction, the Modular Building Institute, National Institute of Building Sciences and other industry groups hosted the second-annual Offsite Construction Expo Sept. 21 to 22 in Washington, DC. From obstacles blocking wider implementation to an example of taking modular to the extreme, the expo explored where offsite construction is now — and what’s next for the method.
Here are a few takeaways from the event.
Offsite construction still has a long way to go
Despite the promises of a higher quality product in a shorter timeframe and growing chatter around the alternative method, permanent modular construction still faces the obstacles of an industry averse to change and concerns regarding the altered timeline of traditional construction.
At the start of 2016, offsite construction was consistently cited by industry experts as a trend likely to take off this year. As companies struggled to find enough skilled workers amid an ongoing labor shortage, many predicted that firms would turn to prefab as an option that offers more certainty in a factory setting, as well as less waste.
Although they expect wider implementation of offsite, experts cite concerns of a change in the traditional project workflow — from the need to bring in modular builders earlier in the process to questions regarding building codes standards for prefab units.
"It’s a different process, and there’s change," Kent Hodson, president and general manager of Pivotek, which makes prefabricated modular bathroom and kitchen units, said during the expo. "I think the biggest change is that the decisions need to be made earlier so we can go to fabrication and production."
Sue Klawans, senior vice president and director of operational excellence and planning at Gilbane Building Company, spoke during the first Offsite Construction Expo and has been an advocate of expanding prefab's presence in the industry. She said she believes that construction professionals often need to "see something to believe it." Therefore, as more companies experiment with prefab methods, she expects the sector to grow. "Industry-wide, we haven’t seen a lot of change," she said. 'But that means there’s a lot of room for advancement."
Planning is key when starting a prefab project
Speakers at the expo emphasized that when owners and developers decide to utilize offsite methods for a project, they need to rethink the way they approach the building process.
"It’s a different type of scheduling process," said Laurie Robert, vice president of sales and marketing for modular builder NRB. "You really have to understand the triggers and milestones."
She advised developers to consider three main factors that could determine whether permanent modular construction would serve the project better than traditional practices:
- Environmental context/site logistics: Is there enough room for materials around the site?
- Labor markets: Are there enough available trades to work on the site?
- On-site security: Is it a detention or correction facility? Would it be safer for the majority of workers to not be on-site?
If these situations arise, developers "should look at building offsite before considering traditional on-site construction methods," Robert said.
She and other NRB representatives advised builders considering modular construction to do their research well in advance of starting the project, as they need to consider where permanent modular construction companies are located and what regions they cover, decide whether the building's design is suitable to modular construction, and ensure that all team members come together early to collaborate in the process.
Design-build is recommended as the contract type most suitable for modular projects, as it allows architects and contractors to come on board at the early stages and decide on details together, rather than the traditionally separated design-bid-build process.
"Each project must be tailored to suit the team’s approach," said John Buongiorno, director of Axis Construction’s modular division. "On the general contractor end, you need to figure out what you and what each subcontractor is going to get."
For construction companies that don’t have experience in modular, Buongiorno advises hiring a consultant to help with the process. Additionally, all project managers and subcontractors should visit the modular facility and understand what the product will look like. "They need to know what they’re getting and how to put it together," he said.
A 30-story building in 15 days is possible
During the most buzzed-about session of the expo, a representative from China-based prefab buildings maker the Broad Group explained the details behind the popular YouTube videos of a 30-story hotel in China’s Hunan Province being constructed in 15 days.
Broad Group USA general manager Sunny Wang said that 93% of the T30 Broad Sustainable Building was built with prefab components. Although the hotel was completed in 2011, it started to draw more attention after videos were posted online. The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat also recognized T30 as an Innovation Award Winner in 2013.
The company has built more than 30 Broad Sustainable Buildings, with the majority in China and one in Mexico. It uses a 2.5 million-square-foot factory with 4,000 employees to create the "mainboards" that are then assembled on-site.
"It’s like manufacturing a car," Wang said. "Factory-made methodologies are a core value."
The company uses steel materials with anti-corrosion technology to ensure a longer building life cycle, which can withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, according to Wang. The company also emphasizes the energy-efficiency of its structures, with 6 to 12 inches of thermal insulation, glazing, external solar shading, fresh air recovery and LED lighting.
Wang said the building method allows the company to standardize design, make project management more efficient, lower costs, reduce waste and lower the likelihood of industry corruption or development hold-ups.
With technology continuously improving to make the process more efficient and the trend of the world’s population moving toward urban areas, Wang said more developers should start to consider offsite.
Now, Broad has its sights set on the North American market, as it envisions the building components being manufactured in the China facility and shipped to the U.S. "I hope in another two years we’ll see the first in the U.S.," Wang said. "Offsite construction is the future of the world."