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Prefab isn’t a fad anymore

by The Keystone Contractor

Warren Buffett once said, “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.” The world of construction has historically been closer to the fool’s end than the wise beginning, but that appears to be changing when it comes to prefabrication. According to Global Market Insights, modular and prefabricated construction surpassed a $147 billion valuation in 2022, and the market is expected to experience a healthy compound annual growth rate of 6.5% from 2023 to 2032. 

Steve Powers, director of sales at Novinger, Inc., can count himself among the earliest adopters, with efforts dating back to 1976. He recently told The Building PA Podcast that the needs of owners are what’s pushed prefabrication from a fun case study in getting work done faster to a full-blown expectation. 

“Owners want to get their loan paid off quicker,” Powers said. “That’s what’s driving the bus – the financial aspect of getting the prefab done.” 

Prefabrication in construction is often associated with residential applications, such as The Picket Fence in Pittsburgh. But Powers notes that some of the hottest markets for prefab projects are healthcare facilities and universities. But for companies that specialize in panelized construction, it’s not as simple as waking one day and deciding you’re ready for prefabrication after a project is already struggling financially. A lot needs to be done ahead of time. As Powers explains, his company’s design-assist process can help owners avoid the costly rework associated with reconfiguring a building’s design to make it simultaneously compatible with panelization and various fire standards, such as NFPA 285 – the standard test method to see how fire will spread on an exterior wall. 

“The whole process is coming around,” Powers said. “But we’re trying to get more to the owners and even the design concept people before they draw the building. So it’s an early-stage concept.” 

Getting things done early is also important when you consider the lead times of some of the materials you may need. One of the main materials used in prefabricated construction is aluminum composite, which can come with a wide range of lead times depending on the brand you choose. Oftentimes, it can be hard to reconcile the desire of an architect to bide time for a certain material with a project owner who is pressuring you to keep the project timeline moving.

“You work backward in the whole schedule – when do you need your first panel on site?” Power explains. How many do we have to stockpile before we start hanging panels? How far back do we need to start production? How far back do we need to do shop drawings to start production? So it can be six to eight months before you need panels on a job site, but you need to start doing shop drawing.” 

According to the state Department of Community & Economic Development, by the end of the year, all industrialized commercial-use buildings and components will be required to be certified under the state’s Commercial Modular Buildings program. DCED has published a list of approved manufacturers of industrialized housing, housing components, industrialized buildings, or building components. 

The state notes that Although modular buildings are built to comply with model building codes and are exempt from the PA Uniform Construction Code, building code officials are instrumental to the success of the program. They are vital in terms of site preparation, foundation construction, utility connections, and site inspections.

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