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What Modular Construction Can Learn From Software Developers


The phrase “time is money” rings true in all industries, but few feel the effects as strongly as construction.

For the average capital expenditure project, a 10% schedule delay can cost $5M. Considering that most projects report, on average, a 20% to 30% schedule delay, delay costs are already astronomical. 

Doug Pill wants to help developers and manufacturers nip these delays in the bud before the first brick is laid by taking a new approach to the crucial preconstruction phase. The approach is inspired by a project management system beloved by workers in a very different industry: software developers. 

“The preconstruction process has gone unexamined for too long,” said Pill, president and CEO of Prefab Logic, a Pacific Northwest-based consulting firm that specializes in modular construction. “This is a problem not just for the developer, but for the manufacturer as well, and we decided to look outside the world of construction to find a solution.” 

Prefab Logic collaborates with developers and manufacturers to drive all modular portions of a construction project, working to bridge the gap between design and factory construction. According to Pill, his team has created a system that enables developers to get through the preconstruction phase for modular projects in about six to seven months, compared to the usual 12 to 18 months.

Reducing preconstruction time is especially important for modular projects, Pill said, since this type of construction is often chosen for the speed at which it can be completed once all of the modules are on-site. In order to live up to this fast, efficient reputation, modular projects need to get through the preconstruction phase and into manufacturing as quickly as possible. 

This system came about as a result of an internal analysis the company did of its own preconstruction process. The analysis determined it had been approaching preconstruction the same way for two decades, always following the same timelines, and that the modern era called for a new approach. 

The team came across a concept called “agile development” that the software industry uses as a project management tool. In agile development, each phase of a project is broken down into cycles, called sprints, that teams work to complete on a tight schedule to keep things moving quickly and efficiently. 

“We asked ourselves if this process could be applied to preconstruction, and once we determined that it could, we developed our own proprietary sprint model for the construction industry,” Pill said. “The results have been dramatic.” 

Many firms approach preconstruction with a briefly outlined schedule consisting of a few major goals they hope to hit. The Prefab Logic model is much more detailed. Each phase of a project is broken down into sprints that each consist of several weeks. Then, the team lists every individual deliverable, how long each will take, when the team should begin working on it, and when it needs to be completed by. 

Pill and his team first tested their new sprint model on a client looking to build a 372-unit modular project in the southeastern U.S. The team was not ready to apply the model to the entire project life cycle, since they were still working out the finer details, so they decided to just determine how quickly they could get it into the state submitting process. 

According to Pill, it would traditionally take six to seven months for a project of that magnitude to get to the submitting process. Using Prefab Logic’s sprint model, it was through to submitting in 47 days. 

“We learned an enormous amount from that first project that we applied back into our sprint model,” Pill said. “We identified what was working and what wasn’t and tweaked things until we were ready to apply the system to the entire preconstruction life cycle.”

The next project the Prefab Logic team tackled was an 82-module development in California. Pill said that by using the new sprint model, they were able to go from the initial kickoff meeting into manufacturing within four-and-a-half months, compared to the usual 12 to 18 months. 

He added that he isn't trying to claim that every project can be pushed through this quickly, but he does believe that if Prefab Logic is allowed to drive the sprint model in the fashion in which it was designed and the developer, manufacturer and other stakeholders are all willing to approach preconstruction differently, they can expect to be in production in under nine months. 

“Our goal is to keep developers from pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into those extra preconstruction months and to enable manufacturers to start building a backlog of projects and increase their production capacity,” Pill said. “Our sprint model consistently helps us meet that goal.” 

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Prefab Logic. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.