Q&A: How Industrialized Construction Is Upending the Design Process  

Industrialized Construction Q A - Stan from Gensler - 1920x1080-Blog

The healthcare industry is no stranger to using industrialized production methods, such as modular construction and prefabrication. The technique has found its way into the design and fabrication of headwalls, patient bathrooms, and operating rooms. But while the industry has standardized the design of certain single and multi-trade elements, the healthcare industry is primed for disruption as the opportunity for industrialized construction trends upwards. 

Stan Chiu, Director of Healthcare at Gensler, has long been interested in the promise of industrialized construction at both a personal and professional level. A 25-year industry veteran, Stan serves on the board of the Lean Construction Institute and has designed for leading architecture firms on complex healthcare projects. He understands the benefits that industrialized construction brings to projects, from speed to market and reduced waste to quality control and schedule certainty.  

And while various industries are embracing industrialized construction, Stan thinks there are unique benefits in healthcare.   

“The stakes are all higher; therefore, the rewards are higher. My hospitality brothers and sisters might argue, but healthcare truly has the most to gain from industrialized construction.” 

Read on to discover how industrialized construction is changing design and what it holds for the future of healthcare.  

Have you always been interested in industrialized construction? 

The simple answer is yes–it’s always been appealing to me.  

As a young architect, I was interested in industrialized construction theoretically—looking at Conex boxes to build houses. Industrialized construction is now entering my life through projects, generally as an answer to something else.  

In healthcare, speed to market counts. Industrialized construction is a viable business strategy to standardize and shorten the design process to build facilities faster with reduced cost, increased quality, and less risk. 

How has prefabrication changed how we design, plan, and build? 

Prefabrication (prefab) is upending the traditional design process. And in a good way.  

Traditionally, we start with a blank sheet and design based on the user needs, our skill set, and our intuition on how a building should be–walls or exterior cladding, etc.–and the general contractor tells us if it’s constructible. With prefab, we upend the traditional design process and introduce constructability earlier. Instead of sharing the design with the general contractor for feedback, we’re bringing them into the process, and it’s much more collaborative. And the good news is, this way, we’re figuring out the constraints during conceptual design, which keeps projects on track. 

What are the unique considerations when designing for prefab in healthcare? 

In my experience, even the most flexible systems have limits. And for the design team, one of the first things we need to figure out is the system’s rules. Are the partitions a different thickness? Can they span different amounts? What can we do on the design side to optimize the ease of installation or performance? 

When designing for prefabrication, it’s important to understand material and spatial parameters. This way, you know how to incorporate the elements into the prefabricated environment. So, educate people within your firm to understand the limitations and what can or cannot be included in the design phase so you can stay on schedule. 

How do you advise clients on incorporating prefab into projects? 

In terms of how prefab is incorporated, it’s the wild west. We work to stay informed on what’s out there to bring those concepts into the design, primarily if it affects the material design. We want to work with our clients to decide what materials make sense–from a cost and supply chain standpoint–before it’s incorporated into the design.  

To that end, we keep in contact with several fabricators, from exterior skins to complete building systems to interior partitions, to understand what’s available. We then use that knowledge to advise clients on what to bring into the design.  

What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on? 

Several years ago, we did a tower for Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. We prefabricated a bunch of things in the building, not because we set off to do that as a strategy, but because as we were gearing up for construction, we realized there were some big opportunities. 

Identifying those opportunities and experimenting with prefab helped us reduce the schedule and budget. As a result, we finished about a month ahead of schedule and could give the client back money. And any money that you can give back to a hospital network that they can use in other places is a win. 

What does the future of design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) look like in healthcare? 

The future of industrialized construction in healthcare is very bright! What if we could standardize the design of a prefabricated patient room so it was pre-approved before assembly? This would significantly reduce the time it takes for regulatory approval–which sometimes could take a year. And as the pre-approval challenge gets solved, there will be incredible speed to market and cost advantages to prefab in healthcare. Anytime we can bring a hospital online faster, it’s saving lives. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to use industrialized construction?  

Prefab is a shift in mindset. Each stakeholder brings their expertise to the table. And as an architect, it’s hard because it feels like we’re giving away authorship. But we’re not. 

Industrialized construction is rooted in trust, confidence, and experience. The more you do, the more opportunity there is to partner across disciplines to develop a concept that uses the best materials within the parameters of a project.   

Ryan McMahon

General Manager, Manufacturing Informed Design at Autodesk