When was the last time you bought a new car and the dealer told you they'd order all the parts, and have the shop mechanics put them together, so they'd have your new car ready for you in eight or nine months? I would suspect that there are very few people who have ever had that experience.
And there's a good reason for that—manufacturing has become extremely good at off-site prefabrication and assembly. A car plant doesn't actually make anything—they assemble other components that are made elsewhere. Manufacturers have found that this increases efficiency, reduces waste, results in better quality, and lets them get the finished products to the customer far sooner.
The placement of a prefabricated component of the Surrey Pretrial Services Facility in British Columbia.
A New Approach
Unfortunately the car scenario I described above is very similar to how the vast majority of projects in the construction industry are built. Individual trades (craft workers) are contracted who, in turn, order their materials, wait to have them delivered to site, and then start putting them together when it is feasible according to other on-site activities and the schedule. By necessity, this is a linear approach—activity B cannot start until activity A is finished. Good examples of this are interior walls or mechanical /electrical rough-in. Typically, these activities can’t get started until the structure is substantially completed.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Off-site prefabrication is becoming far more prevalent, particularly elsewhere in the world. Perhaps you've seen the YouTube video of the 30-story building in China that went up in fifteen days?
Unfortunately, when you mention "modular" to many people, their first reaction is often not positive. Many people associate the word “modular” with products like jobsite trailers or old-style portable school classrooms. These were products that were used well beyond their intended lifespan and gained an (undeserved) reputation as being cheap, temporary and of poor quality. These are not good representatives of what is possible in today's modular industry. Modular construction takes off-site fabrication to its ultimate level. Whole buildings can be built off-site and then erected quickly on-site.
Quality Like Never Before
Quality is a difficult factor to manage on any site-built project—many different tasks are happening simultaneously involving many different workers, at different locations on-site, and often in less than optimal environmental conditions. With so many variables, getting consistency in the end product is going to be a challenge. With a modular approach, the same work is now done in a controlled factory environment, with the same skilled workers doing standardized tasks efficiently, at a location optimized for production. By removing the variables that would be present on a typical jobsite, the output quality is going to be far more consistent.
While modular components of a project can use the same materials that would be used in a stick-built environment, better materials can often be used just because the controlled factory environment makes their application more feasible. Add to this the fact that for shipping, modular components have to be structurally more rigid and stronger than traditional stick-built assemblies, and this is certainly not cheapening the end product.
Making Modular “Permanent”
More and more modular is being used in high-quality, permanent applications—so much so that the term “Permanent Modular Construction” has been coined by the off-site industry to differentiate it from the kind of modular construction that is needed for temporary solutions.
In addition to full modular prefabrication however, there are plenty of opportunities for the partial prefabrication of projects. In theory, with enough planning and organization, very few parts of a project can't be pre-assembled off-site ahead of time, accelerating the ultimate install.
At PCL we are now asking ourselves the questions, "What do we HAVE to build on-site?” and then, “How do we find a way to build everything else off-site?" By asking these questions, we allow ourselves to think differently about solutions, investigate other building materials, and get creative about how a project can go together, which ultimately saves our clients time and money. We start to look at the construction site, not as a fabrication location, but more as an assembly facility—for all the stakeholders involved on a project, this is a very powerful approach.
So next time you are considering a traditional, on-site approach to a "construction" project, ask yourself whether, if this was a car, you would build it piece-by-piece, while being exposed to the elements, over several months, and why would you want to?