Trends in Offsite Construction

Owners and developers are always looking to beat a schedule while staying cost-conscious.

Owners and developers are always looking to beat a schedule while staying cost-conscious. One way project designers and managers are making that happen is by incorporating prefabrication into more of their buildings, both residential and commercial.

Offsite prefabrication is one of the few ways in which the construction industry can benefit from the assembly-line processes that have saved other industries so much money. And it’s proving to be a game changer.

Prefab can shorten the traditional project timeline time because many building components can be built simultaneously. And there are no weather delays or lagging trades to hold back production.

Prefab can also give quality and safety a boost. Workers in offsite factories become experts at their portion of whatever is being built, leading to fewer flaws in the final products. The chance of worker injuries is reduced because all assembly takes place on the ground floor, with no stairs or ladders to climb.

Prefab isn’t just ready-to-install wall, door and window assemblies anymore. Today’s prefab is encompassing more and more of what used to be the purview of onsite crews only.

An example of how far the construction prefab concept has come: Walbridge, a leading U.S. commercial general contractor, recently completed the renovation of a residence hall at the University of Michigan and introduced several new-generation prefabricated components. The company prefabricated all the mechanical systems — including plumbing, fire protection and HVAC — into modular pipe racks, which they hung in every main hallway.  The necessary trades could then make connections to the surrounding dorm rooms. Walbridge also ordered the prefabrication of all the bathrooms, fixtures and tile included.

Once the U.S. Green Building Council saw how much time and waste Walbridge saved, it upped the building’s LEED certification from Silver to Gold.

For larger projects, some contractors are choosing prefabricated mechanical penthouses. These units can be customized to include boilers, HVAC systems, electric distribution systems, cooling towers, emergency generators or anything else typically found in the standard rooftop conglomeration of equipment.

Perhaps the most ambitious projects are multifamily buildings or hotels for which entire rooms are prefabricated offsite and then shipped to the site for installation. The developer of the citizenM hotel project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is having all of its 200 room pods manufactured in Poland. An Oklahoma developer used a smiler technique during construction of the AC Hotel Bricktown, a Marriott brand, in Oklahoma City. Guerdon Modular Building in Boise, Idaho, prefabricated the 81 modules that will make up the hotel’s 142 rooms, and onsite crews installed them.

Offsite construction has a way to go to be fully integrated into all traditional construction processes. And prefab will probably never be the answer to every build. But considering the significant money and time savings and the increased cost predictability it brings, the trend is sure to gain steam.


Kim Slowey is a writer who has been active in the construction industry for 25 years and is licensed as a certified general contractor in Florida. She received her BA in Mass Communications/Journalism from the University of South Florida and has experience in both commercial and residential construction.

Photo Credit: Walbridge

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