By Jack Stubbs
“There are a number of factors that are coming up in the construction industry today. The first in my mind is that prefabrication is becoming more of an adopted trend—more owners are asking for this,” said Roy Griffin, director of corporate development at Sacramento, California-based Clark Pacific, an engineering and construction firm that delivers prefabricated building systems to its clients.
The construction and development industry, like so many industries today, is going through a transformation. As factors such as a lack of skilled labor, rising construction costs and pressure on project schedules, especially in highly active and competitive markets, bring pressure on an evolving industry, companies are forced to look for solutions and innovative ways to keep competitive and relevant, according to Griffin. “[One trend] is the incredibly high cost of labor, which is in short supply. Prefabrication is being seen as a method to be able to deliver the building in the time-frame that [owners] need. We’re looking at off-site strategies to utilize factory labor to provide the building components with less on-site labor,” he said.
And according to Griffin, even though these new methods are adopted for specific projects in an attempt to address the shortage of labor and rising construction costs, the industry as a whole has been slow to respond. “We continue to talk internationally about how issues that projects face aren’t addressed with a change in process,” he said. “There are a lot of industry facts around productivity, budget and schedule certainty on projects, but as an industry we haven’t been progressing very well over the last 50 years the way that other industries have been.”
In an increasingly prevalent trend, new methods, such as supply chain management, logistics and technologies like Building Information Modeling—a process involving the generation of digital representations of physical characteristics of physical spaces—are becoming necessary tools for any project. Increasingly, the construction process is moved off-site, and Griffin sees prefabrication becoming more of a national—and even international—trend. “I would argue that off-site construction prefabrication is definitely a national trend, which is also growing internationally,” he said.
According to a 2018 report written by construction management consultant FMI, “New Day, New Mindset: Rethinking Offsite Construction” (findings for which are based on contributions from over 100 construction company members of Construction Users Roundtable and Construction Industry Institute nationally and globally), 61 percent of respondents thought that today’s offsite construction industry is different than in 2014. The difference stems from a number of shifts that have occurred in the industry over the last several years, which mean that property owners and developers are looking for new ways to impact the industry and their daily activities.
The study found that prefabrication is the most popular off-site construction method among owners (91 percent choosing this as their preferred method) followed by reassembly (78 percent), modularization (78 percent) and off-site multi-trade fabrication (43 percent). The study identified the top three benefits of off-site construction as reducing time to project completion, decreasing overall construction costs and improving worker safety.
One of the factors influencing the subsequent adoption of these new construction methods—prefabrication foremost among them—is convincing general contractors to utilize these more contemporary methods, according to Griffin. “What we struggle with most is when a project isn’t working well with the conventional method, and [general contractors] want to keep everything else in the design the same and move the project off-site. That’s really difficult [in terms of] adoption.” According to Griffin, it’s ideal for general contractors to be designing with prefabrication in mind earlier on in the process. “I want owners to start thinking about how to work through prefabrication even before they have a specific project in mind,” he said.
This notion of proactive thinking—particularly as it relates to the adoption of prefabrication methods—is made easier in the current day and age of technological advancements in the industry, according to Jeff Birdwell, president of Sares Regis’ Group of Northern California’s commercial development division. “The tools and techniques that are available now in the virtual design and construction world enable a variety of sub-trades, so that a lot can be done before you get to construction—and conflicts can be avoided,” he said.
And the new technologies coming to the market, namely those that encourage more streamlined supply-chain management, allow for greater efficiency across the board—especially when it comes to offsite construction, according to Birdwell. “Another general theme with prefabrication [is that] you’re moving thousands of hours of work from the construction site into a factory-based environment that is easier to control with more predictive and efficient supply-chain management.”
However, in spite of the greater efficiencies that prefabrication and offsite construction provide, there remains a gap in the industry in terms of the degree to which these methods are being adopted, and Birdwell thinks that the general contractor community, in particular, has been hesitant to step up to the plate. “Most of the innovation leadership in prefabrication is not really being met by the general contractor community… subcontractors are pulling the industry forward as opposed to the traditional construction firms,” he said. And as with any evolving industry, timing in the construction world is everything. “The old tried-and-true old guard is not really interested in adapting at the pace at which we now see change happening,” Birdwell added.
Even though certain members of the construction community have been less receptive of the changes occuring industry-wide, it could be that the effects of these new methods are already starting to become more evident. Planning ahead for a project leads to better outcomes in the longer-term, according to FMI’s study, which found that owners who plan strategically for offsite construction see better results compared to those who don’t have stated offsite construction goals. However, the study found that only 38 percent of the respondents had a high level of acceptance towards offsite construction methods. Finally, the study also found that nearly 50 percent of owners still adopt the traditional design-build approach, which does not allow for optimal planning of offsite construction.
Over the last few years, also, there has been a shift in the industry in terms of how general contractors are viewing their projects more holistically, according to Griffin. “I think that the key starting point in my mind that has been prominent over the last five years…we’ve shifted towards viewing the total building as a product to look at how to optimize the whole building…and not just look at what’s good for the architectural or structural precast.”
One of the primary offsite construction methods utilized by project owners to create more cost- and time-efficient projects is the integration of precast cladding and structure into a project. According to a 2017 article written by Farid Ibrahim of American Concrete Institute (who is also the director of building systems innovation at Clark Pacific), “Integrating Precast Cladding and Structure,” building construction has traditionally involved installing the primary structural frame, followed by installing a separate cladding system that attaches to the exterior of the primary structure. However, a new method, the integrated precast concrete system—wherein a high-quality architectural finish on the exterior precast structural frame without the use of scaffolding and without the need for secondary crane operation—is one strategy by which owners can increase safety and efficiency and improve the quality of the structure.
Some of the projects on which Clark Pacific has worked that utilized precast hybrid moment frame (PHMF) method included the $65 million 230,000 Class A Caltrans District 3 Headquarters in Marysville, CA; the Roseville, California City Hall Annex, a four-story, 82,000 square foot office building that also included educational facilities; and the mixed-use 800 J Lofts in Sacramento. The precast/pre-cladding construction method is also often utilized when building parking structures—the company is currently working on building a parking structure for California State University that is fully delivered.
Clark Pacific is also producing the precast stadia work for the Chase Center project in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, which will be the future home of the Golden State Warriors. In April, the first quadrant of precast stadia work for the project was completed. Previously, the company completed the new Sacramento Kings Arena (named Golden 1 Center) and before that the San Francisco 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara, Levi’s Stadium. All of the projects were completed using the same products, which were manufactured in Clark Pacific’s facility in Woodland, Sacramento.
The precast construction method is also frequently used for campus/university housing projects, which is a result of the logistical challenges that active academic institutions present from a construction perspective, according to Griffin. “Active campuses want to decrease the amount of site disruption and congestion on campus, so they want to remove as much of the process off-site as possible…they also need schedule and budget certainty,” he said.
Looking forward, Griffin thinks that the office market could be the next sector to be significantly impacted by these still-evolving methods. “I think the future for this is definitely office space. Office space and environment is still being highly customized, but with standardized areas that don’t need to be customized but can be performance-based. In [areas of high economic activity], the demand for office space continues to grow, and the demand for delivering that office space in effective ways will continue as well.”
The construction industry still has some ground to make up, even if owners and developers have begun to adopt these new prefabrication construction methods, according to Griffin. “The industry over the last 20 years has started to adopt these newer practices—some of which aren’t brand new: like prefabrication, standardization, productization—they just haven’t been fully adopted yet in the construction industry,” he said. “As an industry, we have the opportunity to make some big gains on our productivity gap right now utilizing these methods, including technological methods and establishing relationships.”
Indeed, adoption of technology continues to play a role when it comes to whether or nor owners and developers bring these new methods on board, according to Birdwell. “In general, prefabrication enabled by the techniques of virtual design and construction is something that we touch on every single project at some level,” he said, also emphasizing that each project is also inevitably determined by a unique set of circumstances, especially when it comes to prefabrication. “Often with a design-build overlay, each project is different in terms of its circumstances and there are drivers that lead us to [determine] the product methodology to optimize outcomes in a generic context for clients and projects.”
These methods have been integrated in several high-profile projects in which Clark Pacific participated. The Apple Spaceship campus in Cupertino designed by architecture firm Foster + Partners, was such a project that was in part enabled by these advancements in technology, according to Birdwell. “The Apple Spaceship [project], in terms of [Clark Pacific] producing 30,000 precast pieces, most of them weighing 60,000 pounds or more…was a project that honed their precision and engineering in the context of virtual design and construction.”
Along with increasing cost effectiveness and timing efficiency throughout the course of a project, the precast/prefabrication methods are implemented with one eye on the long-term integrity and resiliency of the buildings from a structural perspective, following the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993, according to Birdwell. “Another movement we’re starting to see emerge is resiliency, [the question of] after a major natural disaster, how quickly buildings can be brought back online and what level of improvement needs to take place,” he said. “More and more, the large corporate clients that we work with are starting to focus on resiliency in the longer-term. Resiliency is another corollary benefit of these structural systems.”
And from a financial perspective, prefabrication strategies in construction mean that these construction methods are becoming more fiscally efficient as well as a result of the faster delivery time. “Because of some of the efficiencies that have evolved in the technology world, these methods are becoming more cost effective, both by being faster to achieve the finished product and also because fewer total materials are needed,” Birdwell said. “With the precision in engineering, we’re saving hundreds and thousands of dollars a month on overhead costs, which can then go into the built environment.”
And these new construction methods are not only impacting the workflow within the construction industry, but might also in the future influence the status of the affordable housing market, according to Birdwell. “I think there’s the possibility [that] with some of the prefabrication, [we] can really drive a lot of cost- and time-efficiency out that could help to enable more affordable housing,” he said. Griffin echoed this point, emphasizing how—along with reducing project costs and improving product efficiency—the construction industry still has a role to play when it comes to affordable housing. “My sense is that it’s the responsibility of the construction industry to think about what affordable housing and affordability means. I think working on improving our industry’s productivity will lead to construction costs that can meet the needs of affordable housing,” he said. “We still have a lot of people coming into our regions, and we need to relieve that congestion and population growth and density demands.”