Complexity is costly, and there is perhaps no place where that plays out more starkly than in construction.
Whether it’s a finely crafted interior or an elegant corporate headquarters, polish and perfection comes with a hefty price tag. In addition to the high cost of custom construction, one-off structures are notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain.
Combatting complexity with simplicity to save cost has been a goal of the building industry for some time, with approaches from Thomas Edison’s one-pour concrete houses to mass-produced homes of the post-war suburbs to modern modular construction. Distilling the essence of a particular building type into a small set of core components has advantages, including ease of construction thanks to repetition and buildings that are easier to maintain due to familiarity and readily available materials.
Steel Construction Technology: Automation Through Standardization. Prescient, a Denver-based startup composed of partners that have all been property developers of multi-unit residential housing, takes the simplified approach to a whole new level.
The company has reduced the number of framing components for a 12-story building into just 12 wall-panel modules that are churned out from cold rolled steel in a factory setting and assembled using welding robots. Prescient calls this a Unified Truss Construction System (UTCS).
The UTCS approach is aided by customized modeling software that operates as a plug-in for Autodesk Revit, allowing the designer the leeway to piece together the panels and columns upon a standardized grid to achieve efficiency as well as a unique design. The structural strength of the building comes from these columns and trusses that distribute the load, with the integrity of the design tested in the software with simulation tools that incorporate engineering rules and metrics.
“The light bulb went off seven years ago for us,” says John Vanker, Prescient CEO. “We had the idea that we had to simplify and standardize what we were doing so that we would start to repeat the things we were good at over and over again, rather than customize and reinvent for every project.”
The model becomes the means to guide the manufacturing, with each panel component created and tagged with a bar-coded location that corresponds back to the model. On-site, the panels are delivered and checked by workers with a mobile view of the model that ensures they are assembled in the right location.
“Our software is developing the structure of the building as the architect is developing their design,” Vanker says. “You’ve married design with the structural engineering right from the start, where in typical drafting workflows they start at a different time and down different paths.”
Decreasing Mistakes. Prescient has applied its experience of more than 25 years of designing and constructing multi-unit housing to instill a more automated approach that eliminates some of the on-site problems that they’ve seen in the past.
“Once the design is locked down, our software produces a bill of materials that pushes CAD to CAM in our factory to produce the panels, posts, and trusses that are required in the design,” Vanker says. “From the design to delivery on-site, it’s integrated with each component of the building traced to a unique address within the building.”
When each worker has access to the model, it reduces or even eliminates the need for interpretation of what the designer intended. Instead, the model becomes the contractor’s guide.
The benefits are most realized by the elimination of on-site mistakes that can snowball into costly delays or even the tearing out and redoing of work due to errors. With Prescient’s standardized components, the company has introduced an even greater degree of predictability on the job site, where the workers see, recognize, and know the details of each distinct panel type.
Easy Economics. Prescient’s UTCS is ideally suited for rapid development of apartments, dorms, and hotels, where repeatable units are needed.
Through the speed advantages of an automated factory, the company is able to deliver a finished building 30 percent faster than traditional construction. The company has also reduced waste to less than one percent thanks to its process of unrolling and cutting the steel to the desired length, rather than cutting and having waste from dimensional steel or lumber.
“With all components tied to the model and scanned on-site with unique barcodes, we can see and track the construction of the building, and really understand production values,” Vanker says. “You can see your productivity and understand your schedule of value down to each individual component.”
The primary cost savings of this approach come with reduced labor costs due to the shorter timelines of construction and fewer highly skilled laborers needed.
Model-based design is the enabling innovation that allows for Prescient’s improved efficiency. Prescient has taken the route of combining both software development and manufacturing in order to lend greater control on what has traditionally been a very disjointed process. Constructing a building is still a very complex endeavor, but simplicity is increasing thanks to automation that is made possible by the model.