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We asked Blair Hildahl, industry leading modular architect and Founding Partner at BASE4, Greg Sloditskie, modular/offsite construction consultant with over 35 years of experience working with modular factories, and Jeremy Liu, Managing Partner at Creative Development Partners, the key to managing a successful offsite project and how collaboration and technology plays a critical role.
With general contractors, developers and design firms investing or partnering with factories, figuring out what to prioritize, what pitfalls to avoid and when and where technology can play a valuable role in managing offsite projects is crucial.
Q: Blair: From your experience working on offsite projects, could you provide some examples of how collaboration and communication between your firm, the general contractor and factory builder solved some critical problems which helped the project succeed? Where do you see the opportunity for technology to help manage and improve this process?
A: One of the underlying reasons the AEC sector hasn’t seen the productivity gains we’ve seen in nearly all other sectors in the last 50 years is that our sector is so fragmented. If you think about it, from the start of the project – several different consultants must be hired to start the design: civil engineer, architect, structural engineer, MEP engineer, interior design, landscape architect, kitchen consultant, laundry consultant, lighting consultant. Many times this team hasn’t worked together before, so they are all starting at ground zero for every project. This fragmented system adds hundreds and thousands of hours of rework and coordination, not only driving up the final cost, but extending build schedules.
That’s why those groups that are fully integrated with open lines of communication throughout the process from conceptual planning, to manufacturing, to procurement, to construction and operation will be the ones that win the race. The feedback loop from those downstream (factory, construction, operations) can provide consistent improvement back to those early in the process (design, engineering, procurement). This is essential to a project’s success.
Technology that enables and supports this feedback loop will be critical to managing this data and building open lines of communication.
Q: Greg: Given your engineering experience with modular factories, in what part of the process do you believe collaboration and clear communication between architects/designers, developers/owners and contractors made the most impact? Can you comment on how technology can be used to improve the process?
A: Clear communication during the preconstruction and production phase is the key to a successful modular project. The goal is to understand the needs of each stakeholder, then make decisions that benefit the overall project. For example, a decision that simplifies the factory’s process might complicate or, worse yet, create unexpected field work. The reverse can also be true. Everyone on the team needs to participate in these decisions to avoid “I wasn’t expecting that” moments.
Today I manage this process manually. Keeping a journal is important and it must start immediately. It’s critical to record milestones, track RFI’s and insert snips from emails. This allows me to show the history behind key decisions. I also utilize tools like SketchUp to explain modular details to team members who have limited experience with modular construction. Creating an animation from several SketchUp scenes is one of my favorite ways of explaining an assembly process. I use tools like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, etc to share files during the early stages of a project.
I’ve been on the search for software that truly fits the workflow of modular builders that allows me to automate a lot of the manual aspects of managing and collaborating throughout the offsite project. As the Offsite industry continues to gain traction the need for such software and collaborative processes becomes extremely important.
Q: Jeremy: As a developer, when it comes to selecting a factory for your multi-family and commercial projects, what criterias do you use to evaluate a factory? How do you work with your general contractor/design firm to find the right factory for your offsite project?
A: I would seek out the right architect first, one with deep modular experience and track-record, and then work with them to select the right combination of factory, or factories as well as the right general contractor. At this point in the evolution of the offsite construction industry, developers cannot rely on a process of selecting architects and general contractors independently of sourcing their factories. There is too much at stake in the proper alignment of incentives and responsibilities in the supply chain to do otherwise.
Q: Jeremy: Once these projects go live and production begins on the factory floor, what sort of information would you expect the general contractor or factory/builder to provide? Where do you believe technology can bridge the gap between these stakeholders?
A: For a developer the most important information we need is the schedule. When the modules will, and actually do leave the factory, and when they will be, and are actually stacked. Chain of custody information pertaining to the hand off of modules between the factory and general contractor are also extremely important in order to appropriately document maintenance of quality and condition of modules, for bonding and insurance especially. Technology that can offer insights into schedule and chain of custody can align the responsibilities of the different parts of the supply chain in a way that doesn’t exist currently.