It’s a practice that dates back to the 1600s, but fell out of popularity when the word was associated with single-family ‘trailer’ homes. Prefabrication — or prefab — is the process of having parts of a structure assembled off-site, and brought to the construction site when ready for installation.
In recent years, prefabrication has re-emerged as a sustainable practice — in 2015, the global prefab construction market was valued at $79 million, and it’s projected to reach over $110 million by 2020. As prefab grows, so does investment in the industry: Amazon is in on the action, after investing in prefab homebuilder Plant Prefab through the Amazon Alexa Fund, and modular home builder Katerra gets a boost, with Softbank Group posed to invest $700 million in the company, bringing the four-year-old startup’s value to $4 billion.
For regular residential and commercial constructors, prefab provides several benefits, including increased on-site efficiency, improved labour productivity, lower construction costs, and improved quality and safety. But beyond that, there are three key reasons why we believe we’ll see an increase in prefab adoption across North American job sites this year:
1. It makes up for the labour shortage.
In 2006, there were over 11 million construction workers in the U.S. alone; construction was retaining talent, the housing market was booming, and developers and general contractors were content to stick to the status quo of traditional on-site building.
However, the industry suffered when the recession hit in 2008, and it experienced a 13.7 percent decline in employment — its largest loss since WWII. It’s a loss the construction industry hasn’t fully recovered from. Now, more than a decade later, the industry is facing a new challenge: young people don’t want to work in construction, and it’s contributing to a labor shortage.
Prefabrication can’t single-handedly solve the labor shortage, but it can help create efficiencies that allow for projects to end on time. In fact, the prefab process can cut even more time off projects: of developers and GCs who have adopted prefabrication, two-thirds have reported shortened project schedules, and 35 percent of those were by four weeks or more.
With less material being handled on-site, worker productivity also increases: workers are able to focus on other tasks, and when components are delivered, they can be installed by smaller teams.
2. It’s easy to do with BIM.
Building information modelling — or ‘BIM’ — is a 3D modelling and information management software that allows users to to create virtual models of buildings; the models contain comprehensive building data, including specifications and virtual equivalents for a building’s parts.
The relationship between BIM and prefabrication is rooted in information integration: data and visuals from BIM can be used to create visual manuals with detailed specifications, meaning people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the project can manufacture the necessary parts. This process can begin as soon as a model is finalized, and components can be ready in advance for assembly, creating additional efficiencies for contractors.
Since 2011, BIM adoption in the construction industry has risen 60 percent, with 70 percent adoption as of 2018. More companies will invest in BIM software as both the time and cost savings associated with it become apparent, and as it does, prefabrication’s popularity should grow concurrently.
3. It’s environmentally friendly.
Construction is the single largest waste source in the United States: in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that construction and demolition created 548 million tons of waste, and more than 135 million tons of it ended up in landfills.
Adopting prefabrication is an option for contractors who are trying to minimize their environmental impact, as prefab can prevent excess materials from ending up in the landfill.
With BIM, manufacturers are able to operate with extreme precision. Detailed specification allows a purchaser to order exact or close to exact amounts of a certain material, meaning that a piece can be built with little to no waste. Additionally, because prefabricated components are constructed in a factory, excess materials can be recycled in-house.
As an added benefit of prefab, contractors have less scrap material cluttering the job site, making it easier to comply with green-building requirements for trash separation.
As the construction industry adjusts to the labor shortage, adopts BIM software, and attempt to take on green initiatives, companies can depend on prefabrication to ensure their projects are as efficient as possible — and 2019 is the year we’ll see it happen.
Lauren Lake is the COO and co-founder at Bridgit. She holds a degree in Civil Structural Engineering and is well-versed in construction workforce management and resource planning processes. Lauren has been named to the Forbes Manufacturing & Industry 30 Under 30 and Best Of Canada Forbes Under 30 Innovators lists. Lauren has presented at industry events and conferences, including BuiltWorlds, Canadian Construction Association, Procore Groundbreak, and more. Follow Lauren on LinkedIn and Instagram.
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