Professor Townsend From Cottage to High-rise: Prefabricated Building Components

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Angela Noah


WRIT 340

Professor Townsend

From Cottage to High-rise: Prefabricated Building Components

Though the concept of the prefabricated building has existed since the 1830’s, new technology is allowing complex building components to be prefabricated. Now, with the promise of increasing productivity and decreasing construction waste, many contractors are giving modular building techniques a try.

Angela Noah is a current junior in pursuit of a Bachelor’s of Science in Civil Engineering and a Master’s of Science in Construction Management. She is very involved on campus in USC-CMAA (a student branch of the Construction Management Association of America) and hopes to enter the construction industry post-graduation.

An increasing number of buildings are being built at offsite locations. Find out how prefabricated buildings and building components are revolutionizing the construction industry.
Animation Idea:

This animation would show how a prefabricated unit, wheter it be a whole room, a bathroom, or an MEP rack, is created in a factor and then installed onsite. The video would start by showing how the unit is assembled in the factory. Then the unit would be shipped to the jobsite where you would see it being installed in the building.

In the 1830’s H. Manning decided to send his son, who was immigrating to Australia, off with a very special parting gift. Like any logical person would do, Manning decided to send his offspring away with a house. One that could be built in one location, disassembled into large pieces, packed into a hull of a ship, and re-assembled upon arrival at its final destination. From this concept, the idea of the prefabricated house was born [9].

Today, in addition to fully prefabricated, single family homes, commercial and high-rise buildings, full of prefabricated modules and components, saturate the market. Prefabrication has the potential to increase on-site productive during a construction project. Because, as the cliché goes, time is money, spending less time on site has the potential to positively impact a project’s bottom line. Through the use of technology, parties involved in the construction processes are pioneering and perfecting prefabricated and modular construction methods.

What is it?

Buildings are complex structures in which many systems come together to make a sturdy comfortable shelter. At a very basic level, they are made from a structural support system that contains walls that house complex electrical and ventilation systems. It is those systems and even full rooms that have the potential to be made in a controlled factory floor separate from the construction site.

There is a difference between modular and prefabricated construction. Modular buildings can be broken apart in such a way that full 3-D rooms can be created as separate parts and pieced tighter to create a functional building (Fig. 1) [12]. Prefabrication on the other hand, is merely the off-site creation of building components that can be brought to site and assembled.

Prefabrication and Modularization: Why Now?

Technological Advances

The proliferation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology allows prefabrication to be used in areas it has never been used before. It allows users to virtually create a building to ensure that none of the building components intersect, or clash with, each other. McGraw-Hill Construction found that 78% of the parties using prefab and modular construction methods use BIM [2]. Digital coordination allows a contractor and its subcontractors to understand how prefabricated components must be laid out and constructed to that they can easily be tied into the building’s skeleton. The intimate understanding of how a building’s systems fit together, allows the building to be broken up into basic building blocks.

One of the most important yet complicated systems in a commercial building are its mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems (MEP systems). Made up of various segments of pipes, ductwork, and conduit, these systems snake through the walls and ceiling of a given building (Figure 2). These systems are very complex, so contractors and subcontractors who

choose to build components of MEP systems in a controlled factory setting can often create them quicker and more efficiently than could be done on site.

Schedule and Cost Impact

There has always been a huge emphasis on productivity in the construction industry because, even if no work is happening on a construction site, money is being spent on the basic non-material items a contractor needs for construction or general conditions (GC’s). Because GC’s must be paid for throughout the project, the contractors are incentivized shorten project’s schedules. In a national survey of 809 industry professionals, of 66% firms using prefabrication and modular methods, 35% of them were able to decrease their project’s schedule by four or more weeks [2]. So, in order to truncate a project’s schedule, a general contractor may decide to prefabricate key items.

Modular Construction Schedule

Project Design and Development

Permits and Approvals

Site clearing, grading, and foundations

Installation of Building components

Site Work and Commissioning

Time savings

Offsite Building Construction

Traditional Schedule

Project Design and Development

Permits and Approvals

Site clearing, grading, and foundations

Building Construction

Site Work and Commissioning

Construction is a semi-linear process in which certain building components must be created and installed before others can be brought it. Figure 3 [4] shows the main tasks involved in a

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