Global supply chain snags are prompting a resurgence in prefabrication as builders opt for pre-made parts to keep construction projects moving forward.
Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries
Construction firms and real estate developers are finding that using pre-made components, built off site for installing later, gives them resilience against delays that could otherwise derail their projects. Traditionally, parts and materials are transported to the construction site and assembled there in a specific sequence. This worked under normal circumstances. But at a time when shortages along the supply chain and subsequent disruptions are all but inevitable, prefabrication offers a solution.
Prefabrication moves work that would typically be done at a construction site to a manufacturing facility. This gives builders more control over their projects, lessening the risk of supply chain issues. There are cost benefits to purchasing parts in bulk, and far less waste. Further, the ability to consolidate all of the necessary talent in one place enables more consistent quality and predictable scheduling.
Of course, prefabrication has been used since antiquity, and there are reasons why it has fallen in and out of favor. One downside is transportation: Moving large components such as walls and staircases from the factory to the building site is costly. Prefabrication also has an image problem, as the results are thought to be too generic. Deryl McKissack, Chief Executive of design and construction firm McKissack & McKissack in Washington, DC points to the need for much longer-term planning and organization, as well as the difficulty of finishing the process when adjustments must be made on site.
While the popularity of prefab has waxed and waned in the past, the present holds unprecedented challenges for real estate development and construction. Demand is outpacing supply not only of building materials and parts, but also of labor. Prefabrication can help with this, says Raghi Iyengar, Chief Executive of ViZZ Technologies, which makes off-site construction management software. Prefabricated components can come from anywhere, eliminating the need to recruit local talent. Also, assembling skilled workers at a manufacturing facility rather than at individual job sites is more efficient.
Transporting components built off site may be expensive, but it is also straightforward. The business of prefabrication is evolving as firms learn to tackle its difficulties and find new efficiencies in terms of delivery. This is especially important as buildings grow more complex. The New York Times cites the example of Overcast Innovations, which makes prefabricated ceiling appliances and ships them to construction sites. According to Managing Director Matt Wegworth, making the units can require expertise in up to 15 specialties.
This time around, prefabrication could be here to stay, at least to some extent. Iyengar believes that it will be adopted more widely, regardless of supply chain and labor conditions. “It’s becoming more of an expectation now, rather than aspirational,” he said.