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Gaining traction


Technology breakthroughs and fewer workers are pushing the demand for prefab, says PHIL BERNSTEIN

Imagine a 57-story tower built in just 19 days. And BSB (broad sustainable building) isn’t the only one with this type of plan for the future of construction. Prefabrication is growing up, reaching a new level of maturity that is now going to define new categories of building. There’s a huge rush to prefabrication—from whole bathrooms “plopped” into place to hospitals with entire floors built in days. Given that the technique has been part of building for decades, the obvious question is: Why is prefab gaining such traction? Revolutionary changes don’t come along often in the building industry, and when they do, usually a confluence of stuff pushes those changes forward. Prefabricated architecture, sometimes also called “assembled architecture,” looks to be one of those transformations. In the past decade, a few pivotal events shaped the transformation of “manufacturing buildings” from hyperbole (or desperate banality) to reality.
First, there’s the increasing use of digital models paired with ever-cooler fabrication methodologies. New “making” techniques such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing, more robotics both on and off the job sites, CNC-controlled technologies, and even laser scanning for field verification are major influencers. Collaborative project-delivery models such as integrated project delivery are moving toward more integration, too. Early signs suggest that robots might be as important to construction, eventually, as people.
And then there are economic and cultural factors that are pushing the shift to prefab. During and after the recession, construction capacity was destroyed due to job loss as millions of construction workers were out of work. In 2010, the number of people working in US architectural firms plummeted. In turn, clients used the crisis to drive prices down further. Five years after the recession, as design and construction vitality returns, the capacity to support it no longer exists in its previous form.
At the same time, baby boomers are retiring, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of skilled craftspeople and experienced site superintendents. So with the combination of technology breakthroughs, economic shifts, fewer workers, and increased cost to skilled trades, the demand for prefab has never been more critical. Right now, buildings are still mostly built; in short order, they are going to be assembled.
Prefab does not equal “generic.” Design will be as important—if not more so—in the age of mass customisation and consumer demand.
Once prefab is more mainstream, another disruption will come right on its heels: mass customisation. When a computer is driving the making of a building part, it doesn’t care if you change that part for each customer.
Prefab is a disruption, so it’s going to have fits and starts. It’s not always pretty—new business relationships will need to develop; contracts will evolve; the nature of work will shift. How construction workers show up on a job (and where) will change.
Although all of this was a unique idea 10 years ago, almost every major design school is now teaching the fundamentals of prefab. A new generation is coming into the field equipped to do this, and the wheels of manufacturing buildings will soon be humming. Those folks will catch the wave of prefabrication fully, and workers swinging hammers will give way to assemblers in the era of manufactured buildings.

The author is vice president for strategic industry relations, Autodesk

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