February 9, 2017
by Elsa Lam
For Humber River Hospital in Toronto, PCL Construction manufactured 360 washroom modules in an indoor facility, leveraging the efficiencies of prefabrication.
Construction is wasteful. According to reports from the United States, a third of materials that come onto a construction site go out in dumpsters—and more than half of workers’ time is squandered waiting for materials, tools, and the completion of tasks by other trades.
More efficient construction methods are a no-brainer, but the industry is notoriously slow to change. It’s about to get a boost with the recent relocation of PCL Construction’s offsite service division to a 7,500-square-metre facility in Toronto. Including three construction bays and two acres of storage, this operation adds to the company’s existing capacity for producing modular components for heavy industry in three Alberta facilities and one California facility. According to PCL’s Terry Olynyk, the company’s expansion of off-site services is a way to “hit refresh on current design-build procurement models,” optimizing design and construction processes to reduce time, cost and errors.
The world of prefabricated construction goes beyond the washroom pods and classroom modules that often first come to mind— “pods and mods” as Amy Marks, president of consultancy XSite Modular, put it at a recent symposium organized by PCL to launch their expanded facility. Instead, says Marks, there’s a continuum of off-site construction methods. These range from intelligent materials like preformed coves and tile panels, to components like prefabricated balconies and closets, to subassemblies such as headwalls, pre-packaged mechanical skids, and exterior wall panel systems.
Architects, observes Marks, are often worried that pre-fabrication limits their involvement in design. In fact, “most of the items that we prefab are not that interesting,” she says. “Prefabrication frees up architects to work on the more fun and challenging parts of the design, and allows them to get paid for their real talents.” When it comes to higher-order prefabrication—say, larger pieces of buildings, like the façade panels at Brock Commons in Vancouver—architects retain their role as the lead designers. They bring design intelligence and systems thinking to conceiving modular components that fit the needs of the project, and that can be efficiently manufactured, transported and installed.
One of the thorniest issues limiting the potential of prefabrication is resistance from some trade unions, who see these technologies as a threat to their livelihood. The trades still retain authority in areas such as electrical systems, where even if a system is premanufactured, a registered electrician must be brought on site to certify the work. One way to navigate this, suggests Marks, is to have the trades themselves purchase and install the system, at a pre-agreed mark-up.
In the broader picture, there is much for trades to gain if they are actively and positively involved in prefab plants, argues Marks. Indoor manufacturing provides a safer, more predictable work environment. This creates an opportunity to increase the diversity picture in construction by providing employment for women, veterans, and others who might not be able to assume the risks inherent to traditional job sites.
The push towards greater prefabrication in buildings may ultimately come from clients, as they demand greater productivity, lower costs, tighter timelines and better job site safety. In Singapore, bathroom pods are now required on all government projects. In China, a prefabricated 30-storey hotel was erected in 15 days back in 2012, and more recently, a fully prefabricated hospital was shipped from China to the UK.
We’ve come a long way from the days of individually custom-built windows, but what other potentials might new construction systems bring? As we continue to respond to a rapidly evolving green economy, the role of premanufactured components in buildings will undoubtedly continue to increase. The question is whether the construction industry, including architects, will choose to see this as a threat—or as an opportunity.