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Beyond Prefab: Component-based Design, Manufacture and Assembly

Beyond Prefab: Component-Based Design, Manufacture And Assembly

by STEVE JONES, Senior Director, Dodge Data & Analytics | Dec 10, 2015

The increased use of prefabrication and modularization is affecting construction projects around the globe, but that may be just the beginning of a much larger and more transformative trend.  

“What Can’t It Be Prefabricated?” 

Recent growth in the use of BIM and model-based processes has spawned a remarkable increase in off-site and near-site prefabrication. Dodge Data & Analytics research published in The Business Value of BIM in North America SmartMarket Report shows that general contractors are reporting extensive use of model-driven prefabrication:

  • 78% report its use for mechanical and plumbing systems; 
  • 60% report its use for structural steel and for hangers;
  • 43% report its use for electrical, data and communications systems.   


early on, DPR Flips the Script to ask its team, "Why Can't IT be prefabricated?"


Industry leaders such as DPR Construction hold "Prefab Brainstorming" sessions early in projects where instead of identifying which elements can be prefabricated, they challenge the entire team to justify why any element can’t be prefabricated for greater efficiency, lower cost and improved safety. 

Driving this growth is the fact that we can now work directly with data from models that accurately and centrally describes the physical and functional characteristics of a project, rather than being limited to manual interpretation of drawings and specs by multiple disconnected parties. Other large industries which create complex capital assets, like aerospace, automotive and shipbuilding, have changed dramatically over the past 20 years because of similar evolutions, and construction is now poised for a far-reaching transformation in how projects are designed and put in place.

A Perfect Storm of Factors

Futurist Bernstein.

Futurist Bernstein.

Phil Bernstein, VP for Strategic Industry Relations at Autodesk recently published a visionary commentary entitled "Future of Construction: Your Next Building Won’t Be Built—It Will Be Manufactured".  In it he cites a perfect storm of factors that will drive this change, which in addition to modeling for design, constructability and prefabrication includes:

  • Technologies that increasingly bridge the virtual and real worlds such as laser scanning, augmented reality and 3D printing;
  • Digital manufacturing, aka “mass customization”, which allows small quantities of high quality precision components and assemblies to be produced on demand;
  • Reduction in our skilled work force, which will accelerate robotics and other forms of mechanized assembly to efficiently put these manufactured elements in place.  

Who Is Currently Leading? 

Several innovative companies are currently at work on advanced approaches to design, fabrication and onsite assembly. Here are just three:

Project Frog (short for Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth) grew out of awareness that too many children attend school in trailers, originally intended to be temporary, but increasingly permanent due to cost and time required to build new facilities. The multi-disciplinary team has created a standard set of elements that can be combined in almost unlimited iterations to create well-designed schools that are less expensive and faster to erect than with traditional methods. They also can be very green buildings, as exemplified by an energy-neutral new school in snowy Connecticut. 

The company has expanded its scope in recent years to apply their component-based approach to design and construction on other building types, including health care and data centers. The images show a completed school facility and a manufactured component used in the mechanical system for data centers.   

Aditazz (Sanskrit for “from the beginning”) represents a great mash-up of talent and expertise from the AEC industry with innovation and fast-paced development skills from Silicon Valley computer micro-chip manufacturing.  The venture-backed company initially focused on the health care industry with a full-service approach to design for manufacturing on the digital Aditazz Realization Platform (ARP).

Beginning with early operational programming to define how a facility should function and support the medical care workflows it will house, the Aditazz team virtually configures an optimized design using its library of standard components which it can manufacture in its production facilities. This end-to-end integration on the ARP allows high-quality facilities to be completed faster and less expensively, and deeply engages the future users in the process, ensuring high satisfaction and functionality. 

Aditazz is also expanding its focus to more types of facilities, including education, high rise, commercial and urban development. The images show a prototype hospital which won a competition for Kaiser Permanente, and a number of the Aditazz components in place.   

BROAD Sustainable Buildings (BSB) is a Chinese company which grew out of an air conditioning manufacturer to become the global leader in deploying manufactured components to create large buildings at unimaginable speeds.  The company developed a steel structural system which can withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake but it was not garnering the industry attention they hoped until they decided to leverage another advantage of the system: the speed with which it could be erected.  

In 2010, they began a series of awe-inspiring projects in China that started with constructing the 15-story Ark Hotel in just 48 hours. They followed that feat in 2011 by finishing a six-story dormitory in five days (from the slab on grade) and a 30-story hotel in just 15 days (from the foundation), complete and ready for occupancy by guests.  The company claims this hotel was done for less than $1,000/sq m. In addition to speed of delivery and seismic resistance the company claims that the facility has exceptional thermal performance (featuring quadruple glazed windows) and through extensive filtration provides guests with air that is nine times purer than the typical outside air. A time-lapse video of this project (known as T30) is available on YouTube. To date, it has been viewed over five million times, so it is fair to say the company is finally attracting the attention it sought when it began this process. 

Several more large projects have been completed at lightning speed, with the most recent being a 57 story mixed use facility done in February 2015 in just 19 days (not including a four-day rain delay). The company says 95% of the building was prefabricated in its factory and 1,200 workers completed the assembly in the field, progressing at an average speed of three floors per day. Broad Vice GM Xiao Changgen contends, “With traditional construction methods, the building would have taken two years to complete.” A further benefit claimed is that at the end of the building’s life, 90% of it can be recycled because it uses so much less concrete than typical buildings, he adds. 

Still in the works by BSB is a 220-floor tower, Sky City, scheduled to rise in Changsua. The goal is to complete the project in 90 days (from the completed foundation), but so far, government approvals have snagged the process. The images show the T30 hotel project near completion and a view of the BSB factory where components are manufactured. 

Component-based cities  

Other trends will also accelerate the shift towards the efficiency and speed of component-based buildings. One is the relentless growth of cities. According to the UN, the world can expect to add close to 1.5 billion urbanites in the next 15 years, and 3 billion by 2050. To maximize availabe space, the buildings required to support this influx will, by necessity, be taller. To that point, Dan McQuade, Group President of AECOM Construction Services, says that of the five tallest buildings ever taken on by its Tishman Construction division (including NYC's 1WTC), four are now under construction.   

And these won’t be anonymous boxes.  As Autodesk's Bernstein points out, “Design will be as important—if not more so—in the age of mass customization and increasingly sophisticated consumer demand.” So they are likely to be highly detailed, with irregular shapes and facades composed of multiple materials, with stringent sustainability and energy performance requirements.

Design will be as important—if not more so—in the age of mass customization and increasingly sophisticated consumer demand.
— Phil Bernstein, Autodesk

Since no one expects cost and schedule pressure to do anything but increase, the successful future for contractors will mean adopting emerging technology-driven processes such as a design-for-manufacture approach to putting up component-based buildings.  Bernstein believes that short-run high quality digital manufacturing of ever-more complex parts of buildings on demand will become standard practice in this environment. “When a computer is driving the making of a building part” he states, “it doesn’t care if you change that part for each customer. That means the same computer-controlled building assembler will make what you want for no additional cost.”

As construction sites become assembly sites and more work shifts to factory settings, all the familiar aspects of estimating, procurement scheduling, logistics planning and productivity management will be turned on their heads. New players will enter the arena, non-traditional alliances will be formed, education and training will adapt to provide the right kinds of workers and new types of agreements will be developed to support this next-generation way of delivering projects. It will be a very exciting future for those companies willing to embrace truly transformational change. 

Based in NYC, the author is Senior Director of Industry Insights at Dodge Data & Analytics, which he joined in 2003. Long a respected thought leader on the impact of AEC technologies and high-performance project delivery, he previously held senior leadership positions at Primavera Systems (now Oracle) and KPA Design Group (now Stantec). He can be reached at

An abbreviated version of this post first appeared at

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