Have we entered the industrial revolution of construction? Many in the industry are predicting commercial construction will completely transform the field over the next few years, and the convergence of advanced technology and off-site prefabrication will play a critical role.
In fact, the prefabricated nonresidential building construction market is expected to grow to more than $58B in 2021, up nearly $15B from 2020. By 2025, that figure is anticipated to climb to upwards of $85B. The meteoric growth of off-site prefabrication is attributed to the fact that it addresses several of the most pervasive and complex issues hindering the industry today: a growing labor shortage, unpredictable supply chains and expanding timelines, increasing construction costs, and limited quality control.
Advances in technology have also helped expand the use cases of off-site prefabrication –– extending well beyond multifamily housing, hotels, and healthcare. It’s now being used in asset classes across the sector, particularly as previously held misconceptions about quality or lack of customization begin to dissolve.
While off-site prefabrication still has room for improvement, the intelligent and forward-looking methods used in this type of construction are proving beneficial to various types of industrial and commercial buildings across many market sectors.
Expanding use cases for off-site prefabrication
Historically, off-site prefabrication has widely been used for structures that are highly replicable. But through advanced technology, the use cases for off-site prefabrication continue to expand. Here’s a look at just a few construction types that are benefiting from this construction method:
- High-purity environments: Biopharma, semiconductor, and microchip manufacturers, to name a few, operate in high-purity and constantly evolving environments, and continually have to retool as new technology or drug research comes available. When this happens, the owner needs to mitigate downtime to maintain production schedules. This is where digital models and off-site prefabrication come into the picture in providing pre-planning that historically did not occur. Having the capability to essentially design in advance, and prefabricate off-site offers a significant value that can translate into millions of dollars in savings.
- Healthcare facilities: Modular building design has been used in healthcare in the past, but now, as the need for more facilities and expansion to “healthcare deserts” has rapidly increased, more are turning to off-site prefabrication methods. Among the top 10 building types predicted to expand the use of prefabrication, healthcare facilities ranked as number one. The way in which it’s being used is also expanding. In the past, prefabrication was used for certain elements like bathroom pods. Now, there are prefabricated headwalls, operating room ceilings, elevator and hoistway systems, and other structural systems.
- Data centers: As our use and creation of data expands at a rapid clip, so too has the need for more data centers. This sector was forecasted to double in capacity between 2015 and 2021. The challenge is, most data centers take 18 to 24 months to complete because the design and construction have to account for the sea of wiring and other technology used to run these operations. With off-site prefabrication, that schedule shrinks by as much as 30%. In fact, NTT Global Data Centers uses off-site prefabrication to build data centers in 9 months, reaching incremental capacity in 4 months. Prefabricated data centers also reduce construction costs by as much as 30%.
- Warehouse and distribution facilities: Online shopping habits and the demand for at-home delivery services have skyrocketed. This has meant companies like Amazon, FedEx and UPS have been expanding their warehouse and distribution facility footprint. Some companies are adapting pre-existing buildings and adopting prefabrication methods along with it. This allows them to quickly customize the interior to their workflow needs and create scalable, agile modules to accommodate specific systems such as product returns, same-day shipping, printing hubs, etc., and then easily change those as demand shifts.
Off-site methods are also being used more frequently in retail. For instance, Starbucks recently implored the method to build its first entirely prefabricated store in Canada. The store was assembled in just six days with near-zero construction waste.
Pros and cons of off-site prefabrication
Off-site prefabrication has a lot of upsides, but in many ways, it is still in its infancy. This, inherently, presents some challenges and risks for certain types of construction. In terms of the benefits, however, off-site prefab delivers:
- Predictability in terms of cost and timeline
- Schedule optimization and compression, as multiple components can be constructed simultaneously
- Improved collaboration and efficiency when BIM and VDC is used
- Improved safety as it reduces job site density and moves most of the construction to a controlled environment
- Cost reduction
Still, off-site prefabrication has some downsides primarily due to the lack of industry-wide adoption and inconsistencies in the use of advanced BIM technologies across the various trades. Some disadvantages can include:
- Reduced financing options as some methods of industrialized construction don’t have as much of a history as traditional methods
- Limitations on the flexibility and changeability of the structure through future renovations
- Some limitations surrounding transportation and logistics
- A lack of skilled tradespeople
- This is a challenge in construction as a whole, however with off-site prefabrication, it can open opportunities to move construction to a region with more access to skilled labor.
Even with the few disadvantages, off-site prefabrication is undoubtedly moving up the construction value chain. Given the widening trade labor gap, escalating costs, and increasing unpredictability of the supply chain, the industrialization of construction –– specifically the use of off-site prefabrication and BIM –– is one solution that can no longer be overlooked.