Less Hype, More Teamwork: How To Successfully Integrate Prefabrication Into Construction Projects
Ryan Ware, president of Vantis, believes he knows a solution that can address these and other work site challenges: prefabrication. The obstacle to its widespread adoption, however, is that some people have already formed strong — and often inaccurate — opinions about it.
“All forms of prefabrication can reduce labor and other job costs if all stakeholders accept that it requires a mindset change, but their slow adoption comes from the sour taste that many have from being sold something that was too good to be true,” he said.
Ware, whose California-based company provides prefabricated solutions by partnering with key manufacturers and offers general construction services for West Coast clients, said he doesn’t blame architects, contractors or project owners for feeling misled or disappointed. But he said he does think they need to approach prefab with an open mind so that they can take advantage of its benefits. Meanwhile, his industry needs to do a better job of educating the building industry and setting proper expectations about how prefab can be used successfully on their projects, he said.
“I tell those in the industry that you can't just try to sell a prefabricated solution, you have to teach people how to build with this methodology, and that's true even in conventional building,” Ware said. “Construction requires making key decisions on the types of structural and mechanical systems early in the process, and we know you can't just switch from one method to another and not impact all of these other things. Yet when it comes to prefab, it is tried all the time.”
Bisnow spoke with Ware about how construction stakeholders can overcome misconceptions and integrate modular systems and prefabrication into their projects.
Bisnow: It sounds like a barrier to prefab adoption is that it sometimes is introduced late or poorly integrated into the design process. Is that the case?
Ware: Yes, it happens all the time. The people who understand prefabrication the best need to be involved from the start of a project when it is being designed. You can't flip a project from a conventional to a prefabricated solution once other key decisions are made and design has progressed.
One of our jobs as contractors involves figuring out the scopes of work and what trades we need to go to get bids from. And if none of the scopes includes any prefabrication, then we're going to build with conventional methods and we all know there is not enough labor to do the work. As a result, we fall into that vicious cycle of increasing the cost and lengthening the schedule of every project and getting less for it every single time.
To break the cycle, you have to be willing to accept that a different methodology is going to require each team member to slow down for a minute and ignore the inertia of the industry. That will allow the team to start to unlearn a lot of what they know about conventional processes and methods of construction and help us define a new path going forward.
Bisnow: As you said, some people might have been oversold on prefabrication. How do you avoid repeating the same mistakes?
Ware: Prefabrication works best when the team engages with the prefabrication specialists in the planning stages, and they become part of that core group of decision-makers as everything is being mapped out. We all need to be at the table from the very beginning to keep expectations clear.
We also need to focus on the team's prefab journey and understanding, while getting everyone involved to understand that prefabrication is not a silver bullet — it takes time and patience to retrain ourselves.
Bisnow: What sort of mindset change does this require?
Ware: Architects need to be asking whether a conventional approach is always the right approach or if prefabrication of certain components and assemblies are a better option. Right now, they may not even be thinking of prefab because they are stuck in a rut, having taken the same approach for decades. We can't be satisfied with the devil we know anymore; it isn't solving the problems we have in this industry.
What we do too often in construction is we rush the architects through the design, and then we drag out the build. Then, we try to make key decisions when we're on the project sites while the clock is ticking and the cost is rising, all while not having enough labor to do it in the first place.
Ultimately, you're trying to optimize the skilled trades remaining on the project site. And with prefab, you’re trying to speed up the build by slowing down the design portion a little bit in the decision-making so that the fabricators and other trades can successfully do what they need to do in the field.
Bisnow: What do you do when you encounter pushback against prefab?
Ware: I go into question mode because often the wrong expectations were set. I ask: What kind of prefab system did you try? When did you engage with them? Did you look at your other construction processes and how they and prefab would interact?
We must get this feedback to allow for learning and growth. Often, perfection is expected when that level is not attainable by anyone, especially in construction where no party has control of the other.
Most people want to look at prefabrication in isolation, and that's not what it's about. It is about a total project budget and schedule and how prefab could impact the work. After all, value engineering didn't start by saying “give me the lowest cost,” it started with “give me the best value.”
If we as an industry make an effort to understand what all of the stakeholders — including prefabrication manufacturers and contractors — are trying to achieve, then we might start to solve the problems we face in construction.
Our responsibilities as contractors and architects are to solve problems for our clients, bring down construction costs, give them better options and optimize all the trades while providing them with safer project sites. If we are not doing that as a team, no one else will.
This article was produced in collaboration between Vantis and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.
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