Like “lions and tigers and bears,” a fearsome trio of site hazards, structural inconsistencies and bad weather fueled the development of a safer way to construct buildings: prefabricated, or modular, construction. Some, or all, of a structure’s components are manufactured in a controlled environment then transported to a construction site for assembly and finishing. But increasingly extreme weather and COVID-19’s enduring impact—from supply chain issues to labor shortages to infectious outbreaks—have fast-forwarded the trend.
Yet prefabricated construction’s giant step forward makes sense on many levels. Today, it is often not only more sustainable, efficient and economical but also more expedient. “Why wait for a sink when you can install an entire bathroom?” a recent New York Times article on the trend, featuring McKissack’s work at the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, pointed out.
In fact, the benefits of prefab are many and varied. Fabricating components offsite allows the use of controlled environments. There’s no rain, wind, dust or debris to damage raw materials or delay work. Heat and air conditioning keep workers comfortable and maximize productivity regardless of the weather outside. And fewer workers make for fewer distractions. This cuts down mistakes, diminishes safety issues, makes the fabrication process faster and more accurate and yields a more consistent, better-quality product.
Industry Advances Have Increased Prefab’s Capacity and Potential Exponentially
Though it seems like a recent great leap forward in construction techniques, especially since it’s proven to be an antidote to many issues raised by the pandemic, prefab has existed since the 19tcentury. That’s when forward-looking companies started building homes in parts off-site and completing them on-site. In the 20century, top architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, manufacturers such as Stran-Steel and Lustron and most notably mass retailer Sears & Roebuck all turned out prefab homes.
Yet in commercial real estate, modular and prefab construction has been used mainly for temporary properties like sales centers, clinics or provisional school additions, or for smaller structural components like gang restrooms for schools, commercial office building and retail. New technologies such as BIM and 3D-design have changed the way buildings are designed, mitigated limitations and vastly improved the capabilities, capacity and quality of prefab construction. Thanks to these technologies, prefab structures can and have become larger, taller and most significantly, much more structurally sophisticated and design driven.
Proof of Prefab’s Possibilities is in the Final Product
The renovation and expansion of Terminal C at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport proves the point, where McKissack was part of a team that included Walsh Construction & Archer Weston as general contractors. We provided construction management and safety management services. When supply chain issues caused schedule delays, we shifted our construction strategy. Whole sections of the terminal were prefabricated, including four massive, 9,000-pound gates that may be the largest prefabricated components ever built.
The gates were fabricated within the boundaries of the DFW property, but away from where the terminal was being built. This way the gates could be moved on-site and installed quickly to minimize any impact to the active terminal. While the modules for the terminal were being fabricated off-site, the civil and utility infrastructures were being constructed on-site. Once the infrastructures were ready, the modules were installed. This strategy saved the construction schedule six months.
Prefab Offers Enormous Benefits
From our work at DFW and other projects where we have used prefab, it has become clear that prefab offers the design and construction industry enormous benefits. This is especially true today as material and labor shortages have increased exponentially due to the pandemic and its economic fallout. x
For supply chains, if you are building multiple structures, or a large one, prefabricating as much as possible allows you buy materials in advance, or when available, and warehouse them in a central location near or at where a prefab construction site or facility. It can eliminate worries about having too much or too little of what’s needed at one job site. But best of all, having materials stored in a controlled environment reduces spoilage, theft and makes inventory control easier.
There are even more advantages for labor. Working off-site eliminates the need to get everybody through security in the middle of a site with high security, such as an airport or in a downtown high-rise. There’s no need for security badging, and low-to-no parking costs—a benefit that saves time and money. Being in a controlled facility also makes it possible to work in shifts and get a project done more quickly. Workers who are in climate-controlled environments are not only safer, but they also aren’t exposed to bad weather that can increase their chances of getting sick.
Labor also benefits from the specialization prefab can require. Since it is a repetitious process, it enables workers to become skilled at specific tasks. This increases the quality of their output, diminishes errors and makes their jobs safer; all the measures that must be in place at a prefab facility or site make these working areas much safer than one-off unique jobsites.
Finally, while prefab construction can bring standardization to the construction process, which usually makes building a structure less expensive and more predictable, it does not impose a cookie cutter aesthetic. In truth, it’s a highly customizable solution that lets us touch design, materials, finish and color to make components that can be more well-timed, resilient and architecturally sophisticated—just like the epic gates we built at Dallas-Fort Worth International airport.