Prefabrication Delivering On Its Promises

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 5 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

DPR Construction’s Kevin Chen, who helps lead the Vantage Data Centers CA2 Campus Project in Santa Clara, CA, saw the schedule benefits with his own eyes.

“Our project used a digitally prefabricated exterior panel system and, even though we started our exterior skin field activities after similar projects in the local area, we had our building enclosed well before all the others.”

Schedule advantages are just some of the value that project teams and their customers are discovering from prefabrication, especially when planned from the earliest design stages. With time comes cost benefits as well as value delivered through improved quality and safety, too.

New Schedule Possibilities

Exterior of the Vantage building showing duct work entering the building through prefabricated panels.
Digital prefabrication meant seamless installation of ductwork through prefabricated exterior panels on the Vantage project, delivering a significant savings over traditional building methods. Courtesy of Dan Peak Photography

The sooner a building is complete, the sooner the end user can realize the benefits. Prefabrication is unlocking “uptime” faster for a variety of clients. Data centers get servers in and running more quickly. Hotels can start generating revenue from guest rooms earlier. Biopharmaceutical companies can deliver therapies faster. Healthcare providers can serve patients sooner.

“Pressures we face are all about timelines,” said Sam Huckaby, Vice President of Construction for North America at Vantage Data Centers. “How fast can we get to market? That’s the biggest pressure.”

In practice, prefab is addressing those pressures.

“Prefab unlocked about 2-3 months of schedule because of all the things we could do simultaneously,” said DPR’s Matt Shock, who helped lead the AC Hotel Scottsdale North project in Scottsdale, AZ. That project used not only prefab exterior panels, but also digitally prefabricated load-bearing structures, both from DPR’s strategic partner, Digital Building Components. “We were doing walls even when we still had the foundation going and all this was happening while the market was at peak labor use. Prefab meant we only had a few on-site carpenters at that juncture, which headed off a big challenge.”

The Scottsdale team saw similar real-time advantages that the Santa Clara crew did.

Exterior of the AC Hotel Scottsdale while still under construction.
The AC Hotel Scottsdale achieved significant schedule benefits from the use of prefabrication. Courtesy of Janelle Thomas

“Another hotel project about 10 minutes away from ours was working with a more traditional structural system,” Shock said. “They broke ground 4-5 months ahead of us and we were done with our hotel before their structure topped out.”

A major contributing factor to the schedule advantage is being able to perform work off-site before the primary location would normally be ready for that work. Lean methods like Takt planning and production can be a valuable tool here. It’s similar to how a pizza shop might assemble pies early on the day of the big game and then bake them as the orders come in at kickoff. That approach worked wonders for DPR crews working on a new project for Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center.

“We couldn’t use prefabricated MEP racks in the basement for a number of reasons, and in our long, narrow building, the materials took up nearly all of the first floor,” said Brandon Scott, a DPR project executive. “It was hard to navigate. On the third floor, which did use prefabrication, the racks literally were rolled in on carts and all the material was installed and off the floor two days later.”

Unlocking Cost Savings

With prefabrication offering schedule advantages over traditional methods, it makes sense that cost advantages would follow. The cost benefits, though, come from efficiency; the same work is being done by fewer workers, and it’s being done more dynamically and in a controlled environment off-site.

“Traditional stick-built requirements would have required so many other components such as a large-scale scaffold system to support as many as four separate trades over a longer duration on site. Prefabrication removes these requirements, resulting in a cleaner, faster, safer build,” Chen said of the Vantage project. “We truly proved out that out over the course of the three buildings on this campus and could not have done this without the support of Vantage.”

Plus, Chen said, Digital Building’s system included pre-cut penetrations for the buildings’ numerous electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, which produced significant savings.

“Field installing these penetrations, with the needed access, labor, work after the fact … the cost to implement these penetrations in the field would result in a much costlier approach than what we did with Digital Building Components,” Chen said.

Cost avoidance doesn’t stop there. Other bottom-line benefits come from equipment. In some cases, projects have needed cranes on site for shorter durations.

Exterior of the Canyon Ridge project in daytime.
The UHS Canyon Ridge facility. Courtesy of Kim Rodgers Photography

“We had no need for a scaffolding,” said DPRs Jeff Hauser, whose team wrapped up work on a Canyon Ridge Hospital project in Chino, CA that used Digital Building’s prefabbed exterior panels. And, he noted, that also means no costs for scaffolding inspections.

Quality by Design

Another thing that can keep costs down, especially with early buy-in among key project partners, is there is often no need for redesign or rework. Several project teams reported quality advantages from prefabrication, especially when paired with a robust virtual design and construction (VDC) program.

“It’s like when you’re working on a countertop in your garage. It’s a whole lot better than laying on your back working on your car,” said DPR’s Scott Gibbs, who is helping lead the Wolfson Children’s Hospital project in Jacksonville, FL. “For us, having our workers in a controlled environment, one that might even have air conditioning, that’s a better environment where the craft can really focus without the distractions of a busy jobsite.”

DPR’s Hauser sees the same thing 3,000 miles away: “With our panels being created in a controlled environment, we had very consistent tooling of the plaster. Every panel looks the same.”

Hauser emphasized the need for a good VDC model teams can depend on.

“It’s important that penetrations are included in the prefabrication process,” Hauser said. “It’s difficult to achieve the same waterproofing detail with field-installed penetrations through the EIFS, so the model needs to be complete.”

With the need for a robust VDC program, early contractor involvement is a must.

“Prefab is not something limiting,” Shock said. “It does force decisions to be made earlier. That’s a good thing for a project. When the entire project team comes together early to make decisions, it sets the project up for success.”

Gibbs, from the Wolfson Children’s project agreed: “Alignment among the team is key to success. In the schedule, you need to state when VDC is done and be clear that changes from that point forward will have ramifications to schedule. Project teams have to be very open about this.”

Reducing Safety Hazards

Prefabricated MEP elements being stored on the Piedmont Athens project.
Prefabrication on the Piedmont Athens site has allowed for cleaner, safer materials storage. Courtesy of DPR Construction

The value project teams are seeing is tangible, but even dollar savings doesn’t strike a chord like the safety benefits of prefab.

“For me, the first thing is safety,” said Gibbs. “On our project, we have a drastically lower number of folks on site and a larger number working in a warehouse. That can be 50-100 folks in a controlled environment, a safer environment, doing all their work at standing height. They’re not on ladders and there’s no need for fall protection.”

Beyond moving work to an overall safer environment, teams see prefab offering benefits to safe work on site, as well.

“With fewer people on site, it means more space for everyone and a chance to focus on repeatable processes,” Shock said. “It’s easier to focus because you’re handling fewer things.”

Vantage’s Huckaby said he sees the benefits, but that it also requires keen focus on the hazards that remain.

“Prefab changes the way you work on site,” Huckaby said. “We have to think strategically about the new potential hazards that prefab presents, like focusing on rigging. Prefab takes a lot of hazards off the table, but you do introduce some new hazards that have to be considered.”

So far, on the Santa Clara Vantage project, that focus is working out. The prefabrication shop has produced for the past 24 months over 600,000 worker-hours of time from the jobsite to the prefab shop with zero recordable incidents from its operations.

What’s Next?

Interior of a completed guest room at the AC Hotel Scottsdale
The AC Hotel Scottsdale, with many repeatable elements, was ideal for prefabrication. Courtesy of Gregg Mastorakos

As more and more people across the project delivery chain become believers, it’s likely new ways to maximize these benefits will be created. Even now, the bar is being raised. For example, much prefab work is on a project-by-project basis. Potentially, a way to scale today’s benefits will be to extend them across a customer’s portfolio.

“We must fully understand what the prefab ecosystem looks like, which products are best-in-class, and how to respect their constraints,” said Ray Boff, one of DPR’s prefabrication leaders. “If we can combine that and leverage data with our partners to make decisions, we can design with these industrialized methods of construction and continuously improve them. It’s a never-ending opportunity to be better, smarter, faster, and provide increasing value to our customers.”

“I want a prefab element that will fit any project in all of my markets, not just one,” Huckaby said. “What we’ve done so far is great, but I want to get to the next level where the same prefab panel from one project can be used on any of my projects in North America. That would be utopia.”

The ways teams collaborate will also need to continue to evolve, especially when it comes to some of the more complex load-bearing walls that Digital Building has put in place.

“It’s a big effort that takes a lot of coordination,” Hauser said. “It requires everyone being aligned on the model the whole way through the delivery chain and not every partner is used to that.”

Even so, the spirit of being up to any construction challenge wins the day.

“I’m looking forward to taking this further and implementing prefab on larger projects,” Hauser said. “We have a large project coming up and we would love to pursue that.”