ConstructionPro Week, Volume: 1 - Issue: 2 - 05/17/2012

Modularization, Prefabrication Expected to Play a Larger Role in Improving Construction Productivity

By Steve Rizer


Modularization and prefabrication will play an increasingly larger role in improving the productivity of the entire construction value chain -- on par with lean construction techniques, alternative project delivery methodologies, and 3D and 4D modeling, according to a white paper that FMI released earlier this month. However, the report emphasizes that for modularization and prefabrication to maximize their potential to improve industry productivity, construction professionals first need to take several important steps.


In the white paper, FMI pointed to several findings suggesting that modularization and prefabrication will become a more significant factor in construction productivity’s growth. The company cited a National Institute of Standards and Technology conclusion that greater use of prefabrication, preassembly, modularization, and off-site fabrication techniques and processes is one of the primary ways the industry could improve productivity and become more efficient during the next 20 years. FMI additionally alluded to a survey it conducted two years ago about growth in prefabrication and modularization. Nearly half of Nonresidential Construction Index panelists responding to the survey predicted that growth will exceed 5 percent between 2011 and 2014.


“Architects, engineers, and contractors all use modularization and prefabrication in their work,” says the report, entitled “Modularization and Prefabrication -- Role Development and Evolution.” “Most agree that prefabrication and modularization can lead to significant decreases in project schedules, a reduction in project budgets, and significantly less construction-site waste. Due to the repetitive nature of fabrication, more work can be done by cheaper, lower-skilled labor. This labor pool can be made more efficient with specialized tools and equipment, and field equipment needs can be reduced as modules are fabricated off-site. Materials and completed modules can be stored off-site in controlled environments, and waste material can be used on subsequent projects or recycled. Work sites can be made safer with fewer weather-related complications, less work at heights, and fewer conflicts among various trades.”


FMI further reported that significant cost, schedule, safety, and environmental benefits accrue to the users of prefabrication and modularization. “These techniques can be applied to a wide range of project types.”


However, if prefabrication and modularization are to expand beyond their combined $5-billion share of the $800-billion market for put-in-place construction and maximize their potential for market penetration, the following actions need to be taken, according to the report: 

  • It is essential that owners are convinced of the benefits of modularization and prefabrication. Whether it is the architect, engineer, construction management firm, or contractor that has the primary relationship with the owner, great effort must go into showing owners that they can end up with a project delivered at less cost and in less time with higher quality. Proving this to owners can be accomplished best by showing them similar projects on which savings and quality were well-documented. How do you start? Start with the owners. Convince them of the benefits of a modular approach.
  • Then, make sure architects are aware of the possibilities of prefabricated modules. Introduce architects to engineers who have worked with prefabricated modules as well as to the manufacturers of these modules. Have them tour the plant and other projects that are using prefabricated modules. Prefabricated modules often can only be used in a project if they are designed and included from the start. This is a crucial point in the entire value chain -- make sure the use of prefabricated modules is explored early in the process so that your options are not limited right from the start of the project.
  • Get the engineers involved in designing the modules. With the right materials and design, it is often possible to use lighter materials that are more easily transported and installed. Engineers are in the best position to extol the structural benefits of modules manufactured to precise tolerances in controlled environments. Walls, roofs, floors, concrete spans, superstructures -- all of these are being prefabricated, and engineers are in the best place to evaluate their applicability to specific projects.

Early collaboration between engineers and architects allows for the highest chance that significant cost and schedule savings will be derived from prefabricated modules, FMI asserted. “Architects and engineers need to be evangelists and extol the virtues of using prefabricated modules with both the owners and with the other parties involved in project delivery. The more architects and engineers are convinced of the benefits, the more likely it is that owners will be comfortable using prefabricated materials and contractors will embrace new installation methods and new project delivery schedules.


“Architects and engineers will need to take on a greater coordination role in the overall construction process. Since design and material choices must be made early, with little room for adjustment at later points in the process, and because these choices will dictate how and when much of the subsequent manufacturing and installation work will take place, engineers and architects need to bring all parties together early in the process to get buy-in and alignment around these choices. Finally, engineers and architects will need to design projects and systems as they have always done but also will need to broaden their role to evaluate and integrate components, modules, and materials designed and manufactured by others.”




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