Boosting Construction ROI with Prefabrication

Boosting Construction ROI with Prefabrication

Prefabrication and modular construction have the potential to streamline the way construction professionals erect buildings — and increase overall project ROI.

Opened in 1968, San Antonio’s iconic Hilton Palacio del Rio was one of many architectural attractions designed for the 1968 World’s Fair. The 21-story, 500-room hotel was designed and built in only 202 days, a timeline made possible by the extensive use of modular construction techniques. Each room was built and furnished in its entirety in an off-site facility and subsequently installed by a 300-ton supercrane, a practice that helped the developers condense onsite construction into a 46-day window.

Despite this compelling example — and many others like it — adoption of off-site prefabrication and modularization remains low in the AEC industry. This is due in large part to resistance from key stakeholders — especially owners — a reluctance driven by a mistaken belief perception that prefabricated and modular materials are insufficiently sturdy and of poor overall quality. With the assistance of recent AEC technologies, however, prefabrication may soon became essential to every AEC firm.

The Overwhelming Case for Prefabrication

Thanks to rise of building information modeling (BIM) and other virtual design and construction (VDC) technologies, prefabrication and modularization have become an increasingly popular option among construction professionals in recent years.

According to a survey conducted by McGraw Hill, 66% of contractors claim that prefabrication and modularization shorten project timelines, by four weeks or more in half of all cases. In addition, significant majorities of contractors say that these processes decrease both budgets (65%) and construction site waste (77%). Overall, contractors believe that prefabrication and modularization deliver a variety of desirable outcomes, with 92% reporting that they improve productivity, 85% reporting that they help establish a competitive advantage, and 70% reporting that they generate a greater ROI.

Many of these positive outcomes have stemmed from broader — and increasingly mature — applications of BIM. Indeed, 77% of contractors believe that “BIM [will] allow them to use prefabrication on larger, more complex projects in the future.”

As powerful as BIM is, however, it only facilitates prefabrication and modularization if architects integrate the necessary component-level information into their designs. Unfortunately, the primary reason the contractors surveyed by McGraw Hill gave for not taking advantage of prefabrication and modularization was that the architects on their projects failed to include the necessary details. Among architects whose designs aren’t prepared to facilitate prefabrication or modularization, 54% blame resistance from owners for this shortcoming.

Ultimately, AEC stakeholders (and owners in particular) must be convinced that prefabrication and modularization in the BIM era is an entirely new — and exciting — proposition. In the past, there was a belief that prefabrication restricted creativity and flexibility during the design and construction processes. BIM makes it easy to prefabricate components in even the most unique and challenging structures, because you can test constructability in the model and ensure things will go smoothly when the time comes to install the prefabricated component.

BIM’s Central Role

BIM has the potential to revolutionize prefabrication and modularization by providing manufacturers and other off-site builders with a detailed, highly accurate schematic of every component that needs to be created. There are plugins for a variety of BIM platforms that convert the information embedded in models into a bill of materials that can be used to prefabricate components — or even entire rooms, as happened with the Hilton Palacio del Rio — in a closely-controlled environment where common construction complications like scaffolding and adverse weather conditions are completely eliminated.

For example, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) professionals can use the information in a BIM model to collaboratively prefabricate MEP racks — including everything from ductwork and gas mains to electrical conduits and communication system pathways — that contractors can sequentially slide into place as construction progresses. On a typical construction worksite, introducing all of these MEP systems — often through already half-constructed walls — can be incredibly time-consuming. With BIM-enabled prefabrication, this once cumbersome onsite step can be completed in as little as a day after all of a project’s MEP experts visit an off-site location and oversee component prototyping.

At VIATechnik, we’ve witnessed the remarkable power of BIM-facilitated prefabrication first hand. We recently worked on a large-scale renovation of a hospital with a St Louis-based general contractor, who asked us to scan and model existing conditions, develop a 3D model of the new construction scope, and lead the BIM coordination process. Our project management team worked closely with the general contractor to ensure fabrication-level detailing for proposed drywall framing, headwalls, and life supports in addition to all MEP systems.

Headwalls are particularly difficult to construct in the field, as a wide variety of systems — such as emergency power and medical gases — must be packed into the small space behind each hospital bed. Fortunately, BIM enabled us to carefully plan and prefabricate the headwalls, ensuring that the final product met the exact design specifications outlined by the owner and, in the process, eliminating costly rework for the general contractor.

A Limitless Future

As BIM technologies continue to improve, the number of practical applications for prefabrication and modularization will only continue to multiply. In fact, BIM leaders like Autodesk are already betting on a future driven by prefabrication. Using resources from its Forge Fund, Autodesk has partnered with AEC tech company Project Frog “to develop a transformational cloud-based platform to standardize and simplify data flow between the architecture studio, the factory, and the jobsite.”

“The reality of the building industry today is it’s facing unprecedented demand and scarcity of skilled labor,” Project Frog CEO Drew Buechley explains. “In this climate, prefabrication is essential to delivering new buildings quickly and economically, while still offering a high degree of customization, competitive pricing, and a quick turnaround.”

While such partnerships will make projects like the Hilton Palacio del Rio the rule rather than the exception, this type of BIM-driven prefabrication only scratches the surface of what the future may bring. This past August, for instance, NASA wrapped up Phase 2 of its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a competition in which teams of AEC professionals built 3D printers capable of erecting large-scale, habitable structures using only materials native to Mars.

Sending an astronaut to the red planet may still be the stuff of science fiction, but at the rate things are progressing, we may have all the tools and processes needed to fabricate a building on Mars sooner than you’d imagine.

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