The Gains of Off-Site Construction in North America

When industries need to improve productivity, they rely on emerging technologies and often to great success. In this post, we’re going to talk about the latest technological advancement in North American construction: Off-Site Construction.

The Need for Improved Productivity

There are several pressing issues facing construction: rising costs of materials, a shrinking skilled labor pool, excessive material waste, and the demand for finished buildings in shorter time spans. It’s nearly impossible to communicate to clients the limitations construction firms face with these hurdles, but other countries have addressed these problems and already implemented methods to fix them. North America has been a little slow coming around to off-site construction, but the benefits for those who have are noticeable.

Off-site construction, or prefabrication (prefab) or modular construction, is getting its foothold in the NA market. Already firmly established in European markets like Sweden, Asian markets like Japan, and now providing quick housing solutions to third-world markets like Nigeria, off-site prefab is the construction solution for quick project turnaround. Stateside, modular construction has primarily penetrated hotel, dormitory, and some healthcare construction. Essentially, it’s doing well with NA building teams who are already comfortable with existing BIM software and real-time collaboration.

Prefab is not the be-all and end-all answer to every project, but off-site construction has managed to provide noticeable, scalable, and profitable results to construction companies capable of effectively integrating the technical methods into their workflow. AEC professionals most comfortable with Navisworks or Catia have leverage here.

Construction and Manufacturing Combined

There are advantages to off-site construction, but it takes a dedicated contractor to reap the benefits it offers. The design of the project has to be structured in such a way that expectations are firmly set across the building team about what’s manufactured in the factory and what’s completed on-site. Pre-planning and early collaboration within BIM software are essential to turning around a project in the record time off-site construction offers.

Physical space for construction is becoming more of a concern. Whether a project is within a city or a new plant needs to be erected in a remote place, prefab might be the best solution. The confines of these tight spaces restrict movement and storage for on-site construction, and prefabricated components maximizes the functionality of a site rather than restrict it. Building teams capable of determining what’s best to manufacture off-site experience much faster project completion.

As an industry, AEC has already moved comfortably towards integrated project delivery among building teams and stakeholders. Off-site construction is entirely based in the integrated project delivery system, and teams already familiar with real-time collaboration software will be able to convert to off-site methods faster than those who aren’t. Conveniently, most of the software that best enables off-site construction are programs building teams are already familiar with, such as AutoCAD and Revit. BIM experts can even execute complete Fully Integrated Off-Site Solutions (FIOSS), which will be explored later in this post.

It’s important to note that while the software is the same as on-site, executing an off-site project will require contractors to take extra care and precaution. Building teams need to adhere to the rapid schedule, the dedicated costs, the sequence of the project, make certain specific permits and inspections are cleared, and ensure the delivery of prefabricated elements are coordinated on time.

Managing Deadlines and Avoiding Delays

Construction schedules are determined by a variety of factors: weather, hiccups in the critical path method, and labor productivity are possibly the most outstanding.

Weather Delays

As construction is often at the mercy of weather, off-site has almost completely bypassed Mother Nature. The bulk of the construction for components such as prefabricated closed wall panels and entire roof assemblies are completed in a factory. The ability to continue construction despite the weather has, and most likely will continue to be, a saving grace on construction schedules.

Interruptions During the Critical Path Method

Off-site construction has helped relieve the CPM scheduling conflicts regularly experienced with complex on-site projects. Existing BIM software enables real-time collaboration across the different firms involved in a project, but as AEC is aware, hiccups throw schedules off anyways.

Ryan E. Smith, Director of the Integrated Technology in Architecture Collaborative at the University of Utah, reports that teams of engineers, contractors, and subcontractors who regularly work together on off-site construction projects report a schedule savings of 15 percent to 50 percent per project. The more design teams work together, the easier the integrated project delivery process becomes, and the faster the job is completed. The faster the job is completed, the happier the client is.

Skilled Labor Shortage

Countries across the globe are suffering labor productivity outputs due to skilled labor shortages. According to research gathered by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group, about 25 percent of Canadian laborers whose jobs are terminated find other employment outside of construction. In the United States, the compound average growth rate of construction labor productivity has declined 19 percent since 1964.

Due to the nature of the beast, construction projects utilizing off-site construction have shown labor productivity increases of 30%. The labor shortage barely effects this innovative construction method. When Damian Brennan, CEO of WikiBuild, wanted to construct his own house in the Irish countryside, he received a quote for 4-5 carpenters who would spend 4-5 weeks to erect a stick-frame on-site. Instead, Brennan went with the Fully Integrated Off-Site Solution (FIOSS) and in 3 days he, two experienced carpenters, and a crane fully erected his 3000 sq. ft. house.

That other global markets experiencing skilled labor shortages have embraced this technology for decades makes a strong case for the kinds of labor solutions off-site construction can bring North American construction companies.

Significant Reduction in Waste

Currently 40% of solid waste produced in the United States is contributed to construction, according to the World Economic Forum’s report. As the price of steel, aluminum and lumber/plywood increase, the sheer cost factor of wasted materials shouldn’t be ignored by small construction companies. Companies who have already embraced off-site regularly reference the financial advantage—because of the pre-planning and early sign off, more fabrication is completed earlier in the project with less material waste. Construction-oriented 3D printing is expected to help reduce waste while increasing productivity, so much so that 3D printed steel components are projected to achieve a 75% weight reduction and 40% reduction in materials.

Client Satisfaction

The biggest benefit to all of this is, of course, a happy customer. Cities are growing rapidly and the demand for affordable housing puts pressure on AEC. Rapid project completion is going to take high priority, and streamlined construction processes are going to help achieve client satisfaction.

The Future of Construction

In order to increase productivity, construction is exploring other methods of project completion through Off-Site construction. Confined spaces within cities or restricted access in remote locations sometimes demand prefab components be delivered for “easy” on-site construction. In an industry that faces labor challenges, the possibility to reduce labor costs while increasing labor productivity is attractive. Building teams can begin to design as soon as a project is won and complete it as close to schedule as possible. As off-site manufacturing becomes more accessible among construction companies, BIM software and early real-time collaboration among building teams are going to be a vital part of construction, not just optional.

For more information about collaboration among building teams, read about our Compute Collaboration Hub. We support real-time collaboration across AEC teams while keeping your intellectual property safe and secure. For more information about the processing power to support your BIM programs, call us at 1-800-238-2621.

1 reply
  1. Chris France
    Chris France says:

    In 2003, Kieren and Timberlake published a book called “Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Technologies are poised to transform Building Construction”. I had the pleasure of inviting James Timberlake to Little Diversified Architectural Consulting and hearing him present these concepts in person. It is amazing to see how right they were!


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