The Power of Industrialized Construction

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In 1908, a Model T cost $850—approximately $21,000 in today’s dollars. In 1913, just 5 years later, a Model T cost $525, a drop of almost 40%. How was Henry Ford able to reduce costs so drastically while still making a profit? He created the assembly line. Up until then, cars—called coaches—had been handcrafted products produced one at a time by “coach builders.” Ford industrialized the process, enabling people to work together in a systematic way that improved quality while reducing costs and the time required.

Today a similar transformation is underway in the construction industry. As other fields have industrialized to become more systematic and efficient, construction has remained, for the most part, bespoke: each house or building is designed to meet the unique needs of a particular customer, then handcrafted on-site from raw or rough materials. The process has worked well enough. But new challenges are confronting the industry. A booming global population. Rapid urbanization. Finite natural resources and the reality of climate change.

“The average multifamily home takes 9 to 15 months to go up,” explains Brandon Ionata of StrucSoft Solutions, a leading maker of software for the construction industry. “It takes an incredible amount of manpower, and it’s extremely wasteful. About 40% of all material in landfills comes from construction sites. And if we’re throwing away that much material, someone is paying for it, so it’s driving costs up.”

Brandon Ionata of StrucSoft Solutions explains the challenges inherent in traditional construction processes, and how industrialized construction can help.

The construction industry is also facing a lack of skilled workers in many developed countries. “According to the NAHB, there are 143,000 vacant construction positions in the United States, and that’s up 23% from 2006,” Ionata points out. The bottom line? Our traditional construction processes can’t keep up with demand in a sustainable way. “We estimate that 900,000 homes will be built each year [in the United States],” Ionata says, “but that’s roughly 400,000 short of what’s needed to keep up with population growth.”

Mike Eggers of Project Frog, a leading technology and building systems provider, agrees. “We have a vicious cycle where demand goes up, leaving architects, engineers, builders, and regulatory agencies scrambling to keep up while the labor pool dries up. Industrialized construction is our best shot at a scalable solution.”

Bringing a Manufacturing Mindset to Construction

What is industrialized construction, exactly? “It’s applying the principles of industrialization to construction,” says Eggers. “Manufacturing will be at the heart of this, but it also means applying technology solutions to increase speed and achieve scalability—from design through manufacturing and construction.”

“Automation, digital fabrication, and robotics—these are old hat in the automotive, aerospace, and consumer electronics industries. We need to apply the same principles to construction."

“The upside is enormous,” says Eggers. “Build schedules can be cut in half [and] engineering can be automated when you remove variables like weather and ad-hoc site conditions.” And shorter schedules mean reduced costs.

Approaching construction from a manufacturing mindset also enables improved efficiency and sustainability. With greater precision comes less waste, and systems can be controlled and refined to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With construction currently responsible for roughly one third of greenhouse gas emissions and 30% of global waste, that’s a top industry priority.

Industrialized construction can mean many things, from 3D-printing building components on the construction site to fabricating and assembling complex modules in a factory, then delivering them ready to install. What all these approaches have in common is making the construction process more like an assembly line. “Automation, digital fabrication, and robotics—these are old hat in the automotive, aerospace, and consumer electronics industries. We need to apply the same principles to construction,” Eggers says.

Mike Eggers of Project Frog discusses how industrialized construction can help us build for a world population of 10 billion.

Data is key to this kind of transformation. Each member of the team, from designer through builder to owner, needs to be able to see and use a common data set for the project. That makes BIM essential. “Nowadays with BIM we’re able to have a much more controlled grasp of what’s going into our buildings and get the level of detail that you need to deliver a building as a manufactured product,” Ionata says.

Bringing the Future of Building into Focus

“200 years ago, the industrial revolution hit the manufacturing industry and changed the way we made products forever,” says Ionata. “100 years ago, it hit the automotive industry and changed cars forever.”

Now it’s construction’s turn. “In the next 10 to 20 years, we’re going to see a complete shift in construction, moving toward an industrialized process almost completely,” he says.

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