April 9, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:00 pm
BUSINESS STRATEGY

Construction officials pushing prefab revival

CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Buildings for a new addition at Ferrum College in Virginia were prefabricated in a controlled environment (above), delivered to the college (middle), and assembled on site (bottom) as a way of increasing efficiency and productivity on the project.

Connecticut construction officials are urging the industry to renew a building technique hundreds of years old as a way to save money and increase productivity today.

The renewed push in prefabrication — or modular construction — comes as the industry is trying to modernize itself with best practices and technology to reverse the fragmented, delayed method where buildings are typically built.

"Prefab is great for a lot of projects where you have repetitiveness," said William Cianci, executive director of the Construction Institute at the University of Hartford. "It has been around for awhile, but it is gaining currency now."

In prefabrication, the assembly of the components of a building is performed offsite — usually indoors — and then delivered to the construction location. The Construction Institute is planning a seminar in May to encourage Connecticut firms to take up the practice.

"Everything is really based on controlling conditions," Cianci said.

By prefabricating buildings in an offsite environment, construction companies can better control weather, supervise labor easier, provide easier access to tools and have fewer material deliveries to a construction site. The environmental impacts on the construction site are fewer as the heavy assembly is done in a controlled location; and there are fewer lost or misused materials.

The big savings come in time as the site work and the construction can take place concurrently, rather than one after the other. The savings are especially significant on buildings were many components are repeated and can be prefabricated in an assembly-line fashion, such as hospital or hotel rooms.

Modular construction is hundreds of years old, dating back to when the English moved to Australia and shipped entire buildings across the globe, said Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Buildings Institute, based in Virginia. The method was popular in the early 1900s when Sears Corp. would ship home kits to customers.

The concept is gaining popularity in pockets across the nation yet again as property owners and construction managers find ways to build more with less money.

"The downturn of the construction economy has made people look to be more efficient, more productive," Hardiman said. "We are getting a lot more interest in the past two years than in my previous six years combined."

Prefabrication is picking up interest in the West and the Midwest, Hardiman said. The Miami Valley Hospital in Ohio saved 2 percent off its $152 million construction costs by prefabricating the patient rooms and overhead utility racks.

"That was an impressive demonstration," said James McManus, principal and chairman of Glastonbury design-build firm S/L/A/M Collaborative.

Despite the benefits, prefabrication is almost non-existent in Connecticut, McManus said. The state is home to some precast concrete firms, but that's about it.

"We tend to be followers rather than leaders in this area of the country," McManus said.

Construction companies has been slow to embrace change with its contractors, subcontractors and trades all with various specialties and typically trained in the ways things have always been done.

According to the Modular Building Institute, the overall productivity in the construction industry declined from 1995 to 2001 while nearly every other industry increased due to factors not faced by construction — such as globalization and increased use of technology.

In Connecticut, there have been a few bright spots. The industry is embracing building information modeling, Cianci said, where a construction project is laid out virtually on a computer before physical work begins.

The state also has made strides by moving some projects away from the low-bidder concept and focusing more on design-build partnerships.

Prefabrication could be the next thing to change the Connecticut construction industry, McManus said.

"There is a buzz going on about it," McManus said. "It improves the quality and speed of construction."

McManus said the method could work on a project such as the $839 million renovation of the UConn Health Center, particularly for repeatable features such as patient rooms and labs.

There are some hurdles to overcome. Unions and laborers typically oppose prefabrication because it reduces the amount of labor needed, and more labor is performed offsite, where pay is typically less, McManus said.

With prefabrication once again being talked about and projects such as the Miami Valley Hospital available as test studies, Connecticut firms eventually may realize the efficiencies gained from modular construction.

"With the tools we have now, there has been some projects done that show the impacts of it," McManus said. "There is a lot of new interest in it."

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