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In traditional construction, projects are done in a fairly linear process, where certain activities must be completed first for the next step to become possible. Owners progress through a design-bid-build process where designs are finalized, general contractor/subcontractors are then selected and building begins at the job site. However, Offsite construction is usually characterized by a collaborative design-build process where all parties including the owner, design firm, general contractor and subcontractor factory must communicate from the very beginning.
In this post we chat with Offsite design experts Anthony Gude, Director of Operations at R&S Tavares Associates and Paul Pellicani, CEO at architects LOFT on the importance of collaboration early on between their teams and other stakeholders and how it leads to a successful Offsite project.
Q: Anthony Gude: Given the wave of new offsite projects, what advice would you give design/engineering firms looking to establish themselves in the offsite market?
A wave is certainly what the offsite industry is experiencing right now. Demand is currently outpacing many of the operators in this high-growth sector. I would encourage new firms that are in the market under a decade to hone the design competencies that are required to serve the Industrialized Construction sector. There are fantastic knowledge platforms and trade associations including the Stanford Industrialized Construction Forum, MOD X , Modular Building Institute and Housing Innovation Alliance from which to draw information and vetted industry relationships. Architectural Design experts , including those working for institutional General Contractors, Developers and Investors in particular, must rely on engineering specialists and other advisors that have completed over 100 projects specific to modular. In short, I would say that at this stage and growth of Offsite and prefabrication , that the environment is as collaborative as it is competitive. What I have personally found most helpful is to get an understanding of the process at the facility level, followed by site sequencing and installation. Understanding the profile of execution in Offsite is critical as a design firm or design-builder in order to map out how a successful project will come together.The offsite methodology demands precision and execution from an industry that has historically preferred siloed management and contingency terms. To a great extent it is not the limitation of volumetric modular that holds projects back, but rather the lack of understanding and cohesiveness and design considerations that are overlooked by teams that have only handled a few dozen projects. Success in the field, the manufacturing environment, and ultimately on the site requires repetition and a variety of experience. When a firm graduates from craft-building to volumetric modular, the need for a depth of experience in construction manufacturing , design and real estate development is magnified. The benefits are summarized by many, but always underestimated.
Q: Anthony Gude: Over the past few years, we have seen a rapid adoption of project management software among general contractors. Has this started to penetrate modular design/engineering firms as well? How do design/engineering firms approach technology adoption?
When it comes to advanced project and program delivery, an accelerated design schedule becomes the key to production visibility, cost control and unlocking value. I would like to suggest that the adoption of project management software by general contractors by project complexity and the inherent industrialized component of these projects. What makes an AEC company competitive, specifically within Industrialized Construction via modularization, is the company’s ability to manage and exceed owner and client expectations. This can not exist in the modern age without the implementation of best-in-class technology implementation. The adoption of project management software and at an enterprise level, work operating systems, are the tools that improve the fundamental operations of a team and are no longer an add-on, but a requirement to retain competitive contracts. In the construction industry, the ability to interface with client and/or project lead technology platforms is a baseline requirement that must be met , rather than an enhancement or convenience to design and construction teams. Within the industry, it has become apparent that developing proprietary systems to manage workflow (in the facility, the field or the office) are directly related to a firm’s performance, level of transparency and quality of communication. In particular, where offsite projects and programs interface with the manufacturing industry accentuates the need for radically accurate design and execution. Owners that are informed enough to seek out the modular, prefabrication and offsite processes and the advantages of industrialized construction and technology are also savvy enough to evaluate a business based on its internal processes, technology adoption and culture around technology management. The leading Engineering firms in particular have been taking immense leaps in the direction of technology adoption, particularly in response to complex project pre-assembly, prefabrication, modular material resource planning and supply chain. In the same ways manufacturing and technology go together, so has the adoption of modular methodologies in building and technology in the built environment. Engineering firms are also headed in the direction of digital design models as a licensed product rather than a fee for service - but this is a discussion for another time.
Q: Paul Pellicani: During the early stages of prototyping modules, we have seen design firms, general contractors and factory builders divide roles and responsibilities, what does the feedback loop between yourself, the general contractor and the factory look like? When the project enters full production how do roles and responsibilities change?
Great question! We’ve found that the quality and quantity of this feedback loop, in general, can lead to a project’s success or failure. In the case of Modular delivery it is of even greater importance due to the expedited nature of the DfMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) process.
At its simplest, a snapshot of the feedback loop responsibilities may look like this:
Designers = Spacial design, building code analysis, finishes and overall project composition
Fabricators = Fabrication, materials selection, recommendation of systems and Logistics
General Contractors = Site logistics, general conditions, overall project schedule and budget
That said, there is much coordination and collaboration that occurs between those silos. The most favorable approach would be for these stakeholders to engage early on in the project process, vet each team's roles & responsibilities and identify which areas will indeed benefit by having more up front coordination before milestone decisions are agreed upon.
When these factors align from the schematic thru design development and the construction document phases, increased project success is an inevitable result. Even the smallest detail that can be improved by having an early discussion can reap multiple rewards, especially if it's repeated 300 times on the project!
Q: Paul Pellicani: Given your experience at several design-focused modular firms, how has the design-build process changed over time? How do you see collaboration technology playing a role now and in the near future?
The Design-Build process itself has not changed very much for firms that have been working with this process. In essence, it remains a coordinated communion between the Design team and the Constructor to facilitate a smooth and successful project for the Client. Early conversations can influence design before the project gets past the point of diminishing returns simultaneously minimizing the need to Value engineer after all quantification and costing has occurred.
What has changed about the design-build process over the years are the delivery methods available to all of us. Though the technologies have been around for decades, Prefabrication is growing as a result of market forces such as a labor availability and improved fabrication processes. Panelization, Insulated Concrete Form, Structural Insulated Panels, Volumetric Modular and other delivery methods have awoken the interest of Designers, Constructors and Developers as the realization that we still can create unique and exciting design comes more and more into fruition. Reduced and Simplified Site Construction Phase activities are appealing from a standpoint of reduced risk, advanced operations schedule (heads on beds) and peace of mind.
Collaboration technology has and will increasingly make all of our lives simpler. As a unified team (Design/Fabrication/Construction) we can utilize multiple technologies such as BIM, VR/AR and 4D/5D from initial conception right thru final punch to streamline the entire process. One truth solutions allow us to analyze, calculate, quantify, estimate, build and manage projects in a virtual world with modify-on-the-fly capabilities. The integration and conversion of initial designs, straight to construction documents, straight to shop drawings, straight to the actual equipment on the fabrication floor is just one example of how powerful the incorporation of these technologies can be. It's a brave new world out there...buckle up.