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All Capable Hands On Deck: Building Prefab Units Requires Help From Skilled Workers


Philadelphia is one of many cities in the U.S. that doesn’t have enough housing for its residents, with approximately 70,000 more affordable units needed. The problem is compounded by the construction industry’s struggle to meet the demand due to supply chain and labor issues.

To help speed up the building process, construction teams are exploring alternative building methods including prefabricated construction in which key building components are built off-site at a manufacturing facility and then assembled on-site. As opposed to a traditional build, in which the foundation would need to be ready before starting work on each floor one by one, with a prefab method, parts of the unit are put together in a factory at the same time as the foundation is being built. Doing various construction processes simultaneously means that housing can be built quicker for people to occupy.

To help alleviate the housing shortage within the Philadelphia area, Durapods, a division of PDM Constructors, has been involved with mixed-use developments using prefabricated materials, said Tony Gardner, the contracting company’s director of sales and marketing.

He said the company creates key elements of housing units as "pods", including prefabricated bathrooms, kitchens and utility rooms, off-site in its manufacturing facility. Meanwhile the on-site construction team works on the foundation and erecting the building. Once the floors are ready, the pods are delivered to the site where they are placed into their final location.

“The beginning of the project is heavy on design,” Gardner said. “When designing bathroom pods, for instance, typically construction sites will have 20 different types of bathrooms, so we take those and redesign them into several different types that would work for the project. This is part of the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly process, which makes building more efficient on both the manufacturing and project side.”

Once the design is done, he said, the company creates a mock-up for their rooms and works together with local officials to go over the project details and ensure everything is up to code. During production, architects and inspectors can review the work to make sure everything stays on track.

“Once the Durapod bathrooms, kitchen and utility rooms are done, they get wrapped and sent to the project site, and then hoisted onto its space in the building,” Gardner said. “The completed pods are all done according to the specifications, which includes the paint, tile, sink, faucet, shower and other aspects. You can see how all the parts and pieces were put together as far as mechanical, electrical and plumbing go.”

PDM Constructors relies on its skilled workforce to meet project schedules, with 500 employees in the field and between 100 and 120 in the factories to help with building the pods. The company, which is also a union shop, has collaborated with Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters to recruit workers from the Carpenters’ Apprentice Ready Program, which provides classes to prepare Philadelphia residents for carpentry apprenticeships.

“Most of the people in the factory are part of the CARP program,” he said. “They’re learning there and then they can be taken out into the field.”

He said having a trained workforce helps to keep a job site safe. 

“By going through the training process, we know the people in the CARP program are qualified,” Gardner said. “Learning the ropes in the factory and then going out into the field means that the workers are much more efficient, productive and safety-conscious.”

Gardner predicted that soon, more mixed-use and multifamily construction companies will be looking to adopt prefab construction methods as well. He said that in Philadelphia at least, they will encounter a trained workforce to help make this possible. 

“Quality and safety outweigh everything, and speed to market is an added bonus,” Gardner said. “For our projects in particular, efficiency and hitting all of our marks really couldn't have happened without utilizing people from the CARP program.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Carpenter Contractor Trust and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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