In a day of innovative projects, from virtual reality to the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, there’s no question that projects and innovation are getting ‘bigger and better’ with more complexity and larger in scope. The FMI Corporation  (FMI) explains in their whitepaper Rethinking Offsite Construction that the downside with current innovation is that “many of these projects face chronic cost overruns and schedule delays. In fact, within the construction and building industry, most accept the fact that nothing ever gets built on time or on budget.”

Is there a solution to the time and budget problems that have yet to be fixed? We believe the answer lies in offsite construction for the reasons of sustainability, faster builds, inexpensive solutions and just as inspiring final creations.

The Elements that make up Offsite Construction

The Offsite Construction Council from the National Institute for Building Sciences explains,

Offsite construction" is the planning, design, fabrication,
and assembly of building elements at a location other than their final installed location.

Building elements may be prefabricated at a different location and transported to the site or prefabricated on the construction site and then transported to their final location. This allows for the rapid and efficient construction of a permanent structure. Different ways in which offsite construction can be executed are through prefabrication, modularization, preassembly or offsite multi-trade fabrication.

Prefabrication, or prefab, is a high-level industry term for building pieces of a structure in a controlled environment before bringing them together at a construction site. Modularization works with modular buildings which are prefabricated, prefinished construction and always include at least 70% prefabrication. In John Biggs article Prefabricated and Modular Construction are Making a Big Comeback, he explains that  “All modular buildings are prefab, but all prefabs aren’t modular. Other kinds of non-modular prefab construction include light gauge steel, flat pack, and steel frame.”

Biggs explains prefabrication works with an already-made design and project plan, and “then module fabrication begins. The assembly process is coordinated with simultaneous site preparation in order to benefit work schedules, materials, and sub-trades availability and to ensure that quality standards are met. As each module is complete, sections are transported to the job site.” Modularization is a kind of prefab. The plus side with modular construction the SmartMarket Report called Prefabrication and Modularization by McGraw Hill Construction points out is modularization “improves worksite productivity and overall project ROI.”

Offsite Construction vs. Traditional Construction

Below conveys the most important differences between offsite construction and traditional, or onsite construction. First, we need to look at the main characteristics that make traditional construction just that – traditional.

First off, what is a high-level definition of construction? In general, construction is the design of objects and moving of entities being fixed into place. Even though both traditional and offsite construction fulfills this definition, “The process of modular construction is quite different from on-site construction.” Ryan E. Smith, chair of the Offsite Construction Council explains within every traditional construction process there are three elements that contribute to its construction:

  • Site-produced designs and structures
  • Unique every time
  • Temporary teams

These three elements are called the peculiarities of construction, a unique and individual description apart from other types of production methods and industries.

To the detriment of these traditional peculiarities, here are the top three reasons from FMI’s whitepaper that make up the growing difficulties with traditional construction methods:

  • Shortage of skilled labor at the job site
  • Increased pressure on project costs
  • Increased pressure on project schedules

Modular, or offsite construction, negates the issues traditional construction has with it. The structures are designed and produced offsite. This means site preparations are happening at the same time as the structures are being produced which ultimately saves time. By having objects made in an offsite, controlled environment there is very little cause for delays.

The second element that makes up traditional construction, “unique every time,” does not necessarily mean that the unique attribute of constructed buildings is lost. Modular structures can be customized to the nth degree!

Custom Containers Modifications and Offsite Construction for Prefabricated Buildings
Reasons For Changes In The Offsite Construction Environment Over The Past Three Years

Finally, though there is nothing wrong with temporary teams coming together to complete a project, regular teams that work together consistently know how to complete a project best, because they’ve worked with each other before and can anticipate the needed schedule based on what they already know of each other.

It is because of these reasons (and those in the graph below) that offsite construction is surging. Two-thirds of participants from a survey conducted by FMI stated: “Today’s offsite construction environment is different than it was just three years ago.”

Modular Offsite Construction uses an Inside-Out Approach

In the article Offsite and Modular Construction Explained another difference between offsite and traditional construction is explained. Practicality is at play in the building process between traditional construction and modular offsite construction with the inside-out approach. Traditional construction starts from the outside of a structure and then moves in to finish inside jobs like interior surface, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, insulation, exterior sheathing, and cladding. With a modular structure, the frame is fitted together to form the infamous rectangle/box shape, and then the inside jobs are completed before the outside paneling is applied. Here’s a picture of a modular being built; the steel frame is up and the interior hardware is applied before any outside paneling closes the structure in.

Traditional, on-site assembly is restricted for multiple reasons like weather delays or the delay of multiple trades waiting on the other to finish. In the building lifecycle, if one trade working on plumbing is running behind, the next trade for electrical wiring will have a delayed start date. As the article above explains,

Custom Shipping Containers Construction and Mobile Office Trailers

Factory production of modules avoids the difficulties of unpredictable weather,
trades waiting on one another, and incessant delays associated with on-site construction.

Modular Conservation vs. Traditional Waste

Not only does modular offsite construction have a different method of assembly, it also conserves more when it comes to the waste that accumulates during the process of traditional construction.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states, “57% of activities in [traditional] construction, are wasteful and non-value adding. These are activities that are not compensated. Manufacturing is directly opposite with 62% of all activities being value-adding. Replacing the wasteful elements of construction with manufacturing benefits through modular processes can remove waste and increase value for projects.”

Traditional construction and its methods haven’t changed or developed.  Modular construction is newer and inevitably allows for innovation and customization in its methods. Because of this, sustainability within traditional construction hasn't been a priority whereas, with offsite construction, sustainability is built into the execution of the processes. When it comes to waste generated from construction methods, WRAP: Material Change for a Better Environment, stated in their Offsite Construction Case Study


Offsite construction generates up to 90% LESS waste than traditional onsite construction building methods.

Evaluating the Benefits of Offsite Construction

Even with these benefits being proven over time, FMI research found “62% of respondents’ organizations are still on the fence about offsite construction." The US would benefit in the Engineering and Construction (E&C) industry to look to those who have taken the risk before them and found it to be a better solution. After performing research, The National Institute of Building Sciences documented all the benefits of offsite construction versus traditional onsite construction:

  • shorter construction schedules
  • a greater degree of predictability in cost
  • reduced material waste
  • reduced carbon emissions due to transportation to and from the site associated with onsite construction
  • reduced site disturbance
  • an increase of safety and security of laborers and trade equipment.

Through more research, they found Permanent Modular Construction (PMC) (i.e. an offsite construction project) “has been flourishing for a decade or more in Europe, but is just now emerging in the North American market.” Below are the benefits a UK company found implementing offsite modular construction compared to onsite traditional construction methods:

  • 30-50% faster than traditional construction
  • Assembled in factories which provides tight tolerances and quality control
  • Build process occurs in a set timeframe
  • Sheltered construction from the elements which means weather delays are no longer a factor
  • Site preparation can commence at the same time as construction for assembly, saving time
Mobile Office Solutions and Custom Container Modifications
Why Are Only 46% of Capital Projects using Offsite Construction Methods?

 

Besides the above statement, there are two main areas that have added to the disconnect and hindered offsite construction from taking off in the U.S. despite the proven benefits in the schedule, cost, and low risk.  

Planning

In the article Offsite and Modular Construction Explained, offsite delivery and early planning are dependent concepts; you just can’t have one without the other. Regarding the planning and execution of construction projects, early planning is not a strong suit. FMI’s article Rethinking Offsite Construction explains one reason for this is that project owners "don't have enough project professionals engaged in the early planning phase. It’s all business driven.” Along with that, “contracts don't allow for the early involvement of key stakeholders, such as equipment vendors, fabricators, and construction service providers, which further impedes project success."

A change of thought needs to happen towards offsite construction and thinking of it as a delivery method. In this method, owners would analyze and select different options: a design-bid build, a design-negotiated-build or a design-build delivery strategy. The key findings from the FMI research conclude when it comes to planning, “An early and deliberate decision is vital with offsite construction.”

People

A lack of awareness of the offsite construction method is another reason why it’s not being adopted quickly. A lack of awareness can also come with a misunderstanding about the offsite techniques.

FMI research shows that four of the top-six impediments currently holding owners back from adopting or driving offsite construction methods are all people-related:

  • Lack of knowledge and experience
  • Fear of taking new risks (and associated job losses)
  • A corporate culture that does not embrace change
  • Reluctance to use different delivery methods such as design-build
Top Impediments to the Adoption of Offsite Construction of Modular Buildings
Top Impediments to the Adoption of Offsite Construction

In the process of starting a construction project, decisions are made at the executive level, a level unfamiliar with the execution level. “In many cases, executives don’t consider project delivery methods, construction industry pressures, drivers or bottlenecks and what it takes to effectively execute a capital project.” How can they make an informed decision, looking at all benefits, if they are unaware of the current flaws in traditional projects?

New ways of thinking can be intimidating if the old ways of doing things are good enough and get the job done, no matter the cost. This cultural attitude is one of the biggest barriers as it relates to offsite construction. A participant for the FMI whitepaper explained, “We just have a ‘stick-built’ culture. The problem is that a company’s strategy is at odds with its very culture.”

Potential questions to consider if you’re making executive project decisions:

  • What new behaviors would a new cultural approach reinforce?
  • Which existing behaviors would be eradicated?
  • How would our relationships with industry stakeholders change and morph?
  • How will employees propose new ideas and/or evaluate and collaborate with one another?
  • How will employees make light of potential problems and/or react to their colleagues’ actions?

Why should the U.S. move towards Offsite Construction?

When looking at the results of prefabrication applied internationally,

Many benefits have been found in the areas of labor, scheduling, cost, quality, and safety.

When looking at prefabrication methods in the United States, the National Research Council states, "there’s countless potential for advancing the competitiveness and productivity of the domestic construction industry over the next 20 years."

The U.S. had led in innovation for years and strives to find new and improved ways of production – "Offsite construction will improve productivity dramatically in the coming decades." For a realistic example, Wilmot Modular, a company that's adopted the thinking necessary to execute prefabrication and modular structures with excellence every time has delivered great success in their client's final products.

After 30 years of building modular structures, Wilmot can confidently provide the telling results that modular structures work with virtually any budget. Re-usability, flexible engineering capabilities and the vast number of ideas for maximizing space usage combine to make modular buildings one of the most cost-effective and efficient types of the construction process."

How to Adopt Offsite Construction

Modularization is Key

How can the current U.S. industry be transformed to include, and therefore benefit from, all the pro’s offsite construction provides? The three elements that need to be considered as the main pillars of strategy for every prefab project are project delivery, people, and planning. Al Schwarzkopf, associate director with Merck and Co., Inc., stated, “In order for us to have a radical change in productivity as an industry, we’ve got to revolutionize the way we deliver projects.

Modularization is probably one of the key components in being able to take that first step.

The pillar elements for a successful strategy of adopting offsite construction are NOT being executed across teams and projects...yet. “There’s outdated procurement practice and decision-making models that hinder many owner organizations from breaking out of antiquated processes and related behaviors.”

Strategic Planning

The best way to start adopting offsite construction methods is for owner organizations to have “an early and deliberate decision.” Start learning about industry best practices, the first being strategic planning. Ask why you’re pursuing offsite construction. Successful companies in the industry who’ve adopted offsite construction have “selected an executive-level champion to lead the offsite construction initiative and align all teams with company’s overall project execution vision and strategy.”

Points to Consider in the Planning Phase

With offsite construction, project planning must include (but is not limited to):

  • Firms available to the owner with expertise in prefabrication that can be considered for the project
  • Offsite resources (e.g., real estate) for fabrication and staging
  • Logistics/shipping and delivery of large prefabricated assemblies to the job site
  • Specific skills and equipment associated with offsite construction activities

Design and Delivery Approach

After planning has been thoroughly thought through and communicated, the design phase “must drive the coordination and production of architectural and engineering drawings.” With the offsite construction delivery approach, “the construction drawings could conceivably be exclusively produced by the contractor and specialty trades with further coordination and code compliance review by the architecture or engineering firm(s).”

 

What does this ‘upfront planning’ actually look like when played out practically? Peter Dumont, Vice President of Global Strategic Projects at Pentair Thermal management sums it up well in Rethinking Offsite Construction:

 

Offsite work requires a lot of up-front planning, which needs to be completely analyzed and prepared for during FEED.  It also requires much special design and material selection considerations. You just can't take stick-built designs and cut them up into modules. You have to perform modular-based design upfront and plan the myriad of material, logistical and scope-split types of issues into the process.

Top Motivators for Adopting Offsite Construction

Are you trying to drive the adoption of offsite construction in your company or organization? Consider some of the factors below, found to be the main motivators of the 2018 Offsite Construction Owner Survey:

Offsite Construction Owner Survey for Modular Buildings

 

Offsite Construction Takeaways

  • FMI teaches in Moving from Offsite Construction to Smarter Project Execution that, “Offsite construction is not something you can just dabble in and expect to see big returns from. It is an entirely different business philosophy that must be a fundamental part of the corporate strategy. Otherwise, it just ends up being a very expensive mistake.”
  • The pros outnumber the cons in labor, scheduling, cost, quality and safety
  • Modularization is key when adopting offsite construction methods

When starting off on the new road to offsite construction, it can be helpful to see where it's being done well already. Wilmot Modular has been in the business for 30 years, being experts at not only the philosophy and planning of offsite modular construction but also in providing excellent customer service. By providing solutions for every space need in the industry, Wilmot Modular never fails to execute the vision owners and project builders are just now getting their feet wet in.

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