Demand from the construction industry continues to skyrocket with society’s need for more housing, infrastructure, and data. And while the industry does find this increased demand rather attractive from a growth standpoint, access and availability of labor resources prove to be an added challenge.
The workaround? According to Stacy Scopano, JE Dunn’s Vice President, National Prefabrication & Manufacturing Director, “Industrialized construction is the tipping point, promising to enable the industry to better increase global construction capacity, even with the labor pool restrictions at hand.”
An industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience, Stacy started in the trades and watched first-hand as the application of industrialized construction rapidly evolved. We spoke with Stacy to learn how he strategizes with his clients and the benefits of industrialized construction as he sees them–from building more sustainably to reducing risk in high-risk, high-margin sectors.
The main takeaway: industrialized construction is reverse engineering the construction process, offering a more thoughtful and systematic planning approach throughout every stage of the delivery process.
Let’s dive in!
Prefabrication (prefab) is an effort to incorporate more thoughtful planning into the design process. By front-loading considerations from production or the field earlier into the design phase, you’re allowing the producers and trade partners to collaborate with the designers in a coordinated fashion.
And with a more systematic approach to almost every stage of the delivery process, you’re constantly looking downstream and thinking about operations to optimize design. And that’s the difference between prefab and the traditional delivery process.
I got my start in the trades when I was in college. By morning, I was a civil engineering student and worked in a steel fabrication facility by night. The mechanical, structural steel, and precast trades are “industrialized” because most work happens in fabrication facilities, offsite. You don’t want to drill a hole through a three-inch piece of steel with some sort of hand tool onsite! And that work taught me early on what it meant to design for production and constructability.
Fast forward to today, where this approach to production that’s already well bathed in the trade fabrication arenas, is now seeping into less “industrialized” spaces, like healthcare. And we’re taking those lessons learned and those approaches to broader portions of commercial construction too.
The demands on our industry are beginning to accelerate. Where I scratch my head is that we keep talking about labor shortages, and it’s not getting better. We are attracting more work on the demand side, yet we have fewer inputs on the labor side. Where’s the tipping point?
This is the biggest value proposition for industrialized construction, bar none. How do you create affordable housing? You inject more housing supply. That’s construction. How do you respond to an infrastructure bill? That’s construction. How do you provide the facilities hosting data? That’s construction. There’s nothing you’ll do in the next five years that won’t demand more from less. That “less” is our limitations on construction capacity and labor resources; yet the solve to carrying out that “more from less” is shaping up to be industrialized construction.
Prefab is divided up by early adopters, early and late majorities, and complete laggards, each category of which includes owners, trade partners and design teams. While you may have a sophisticated program, you may still experience constraints if say, your design team has limited experience or if one of your primary trades underestimates the front-end work needed in collaboration with the design team. The challenge is dependent upon each stakeholder group’s maturity model.
It’s going to take almost a polarizing approach to enact real change, where you’re looking for those great innovation opportunities, you’ve got a great product, you’re in the right vertical market, and you’ve got the right team, and so you push it forward to gain adoption. These ideal scenarios allow for a step change in process improvement that can help the client scale their programs and will enable each stakeholder in the delivery process to refine their standard process.
We turn to prefab in projects if the specific project dynamics call for it. Maybe the project is in a remote location, far from any urban center population, and exceeds the bandwidth of the labor supply onsite, or perhaps local weather conditions might render the project’s delivery schedule susceptible to delays. With offsite construction, we can solve these specific project challenges by reverse engineering prefab into the process and engaging earlier with owners. And sometimes, an owner has already concluded that they’re going to solve their growth demands by codifying an industrialized approach, and we’re advising in response to direct client requests.
Alternatively, markets like multi-family residential are very margin sensitive, so costs drive a lot of the decision-making. But uncertainty around price escalations, availability, and interest rates amplifies speed to market and how deals develop. We’re starting to see developers show an interest in industrialized construction to keep up with the post-COVID market risks and service opportunities in population migrations.
With industrialized construction, we create economies of scale by standardizing design and development and thus “productize” a developer’s portfolio. This approach enables us to have a more strategic conversation with our clients and scale production minimizing the supply and schedule restraints. Prefab helps you to identify up front the long lead, “big ticket items” that tend to become issues. In doing so, you get more resiliency by looking across projects and optimizing procurement strategies, which protects you from further risks downstream.
On one of our healthcare projects, our field teams lifted a prefabricated, 750-foot-long pipe section in a prefabricated rack right into place in one fell swoop. If you were to calculate the sheer productivity savings yielded by installing that linear footage of pipe, it would be simply off the charts. If that example alone isn’t a solid poster child demonstrating the value of using prefab, I don’t know what is. Simply put, we need to be doing more with less.