Prefabrication is changing construction – so why are many still lagging behind?

Prefabrication

It’s always rewarding to see the feedback from a client who employed prefabrication on a project for the first time. Even in the UK, where there has been a significant uptake in prefabricating structures over the last decade, clients still dismiss it as an unnecessary extra step in the construction process.

And it’s understandable, a lot of work will have gone into getting the project to where it is and it’s easy to wonder why they should add another phase when one could simply transport the products on-site and start building? Or indeed, they simply don’t consider prefabricating at all. However, and I’m confident this is where construction will head, working with clients to build prior to the worksite will continue to grow in uptake and success.

Traditionally, the construction industry has been quite slow at adopting new ways of working. Loyalty to tried-and-tested methods remains, and it usually takes a moment of realisation to change practices. The multiple lockdowns and social distancing protocols implemented of late actually provided a spark for a number of contractors to select prefab.

There was a sudden urgency to construct in the crisis

Hospitals were needed to treat the sick and data centres were required to cover the increase in internet usage that came with working from home and extended periods indoors. Prefabrication’s proven time and labour savings were needed at a critical time; and now we are unlikely to look back.

Save time and money through prefab

While prefabrication has plenty of benefits, including mitigating risk by decreasing labour and reducing material handling on busy worksites, the reason we advocate to take the extra step within the project boils down to two primary factors: cost and time.

For example: To install a section on the top of a roof, a crane is required on site. Using ‘traditional’ methods, different parts will be delivered at separate times to the site, forcing the crane to stay in place for the duration of the project in order to complete construction. However, if the different parts are prefabricated and delivered onsite as a whole, the crane is only needed for that single day.

Furthermore, and this is often a huge benefit for urban projects, prefabricating will lead to fewer large transportation vehicles entering the jobsite. Not only is this a bonus for the environment, but it also serves to produce a more efficient jobsite. A better schedule can be developed - the construction site team will know where a section of piping arriving on a certain day needs to be installed – and twice the productive hours can be achieved due to better materials flow control and improved supervision amongst other things. That simplicity and clarity in approach cannot be underestimated.

A good analogy to help explain the concept of prefabrication is to compare it to flatpack products. You don’t necessarily need to know how to make the desk (or section of piping in the case of the installer); simply follow the instructions (drawings) and put the pieces together.

Enhanced safety and reducing risk

Getting to site!

The goal of prefabrication is to reduce the risk inherent in the variability of field labour, whilst producing the best possible product at an overall total installed cost advantage.  Fabrication shops provide predictable productivity and thereby reduce exposure to variable labour risk.  A subsequent benefit of reduced field man-hours is the reduced exposure to jobsite injuries.  One of the primary causes of onsite accidents, materials handling, is also kept to a minimum.  Fabrication shops provide a cleaner, more organised environment where tooling and efficient shop layouts allow pipe spools to be manoeuvred more safely and more quickly than on the jobsite.  In addition, the quality of prefabricated pipework is typically more consistent due to the planning, tooling and controlled working conditions. By minimising the interference of everything from weather to other trades on the jobsite and removing people from the jobsite more quickly, prefabrication reduces onsite risk and increases overall installation speed and quality.

Education is key to progress

To effectively change opinion, education will be key. Although prefabrication is hardly a new concept, it is a departure from the “traditional” process most professionals have become accustomed to following. We need a culture-change in the industry: a move away from thinking that transporting every part as quickly as possible to the jobsite will be the best solution. We’re starting to see this change take place more in industrial buildings – where the property owner is often a business constructing a new factory or distribution centre – rather than in commercial buildings, which are usually rented out as office space.  

Fortunately, there are various solutions available to overcome any such hurdles. Unlike traditional methods of pipe joining such as welding or flanging (which once fixed in-place are extremely tricky to change), grooved mechanical pipe joining systems are particularly well place to allow for easy readjustments as each coupling only requires two bolts to be tightened on either side. So, if minor adjustments are needed the method itself is still time and cost effective. As such, whilst piping is often not seen as a critical value-engineering element with respect to the full scope of a job, but it is an area where front-loading efficiencies and maximising productivity can produce significant savings in man-hours and ultimately can help compress construction schedules. 

Looking forward

We’ve already seen significant growth in uptake over the last decade or so and as the offer to clients is developed, I expect pick up to continue to rise. And with every project we complete with a client we look to learn and improve our prefabrication offer. After each project, we perform a post-mortem with the client, working together to see what went well and what could be adapted to be more successful.

By undertaking this step, by understanding the needs of our clients, our offer can improve with their feedback. Our ambition is, and we hope to see this come true over the coming years, that as our prefabrication service evolves, more of our clients will decide to take on the new method with us.

Shaun Hughes is Regional Sales Manager Southern UK at Victaulic

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