Pandemic-inspired innovation is boosting construction productivity
One of the odd ironies of COVID-19 is the pandemic that has periodically shut down construction sites and weighed down schedules with new distancing and cleaning requirements may actually end up boosting productivity within the construction industry.
Confronted with the limitations of completing construction mid-pandemic, construction industry companies are embracing new technologies, expanding prefabrication and exploring alternate methods of sourcing materials and services in order to keep their projects on schedule.
“A lot of things we had to do because of COVID-19 wound up benefitting us. We have seen improvements to our methods and procedures that are probably going to stay after the health crisis is over,” said Craig Smith, Senior Project Manager at Wohlsen Construction.
Contractors, who had already begun to utilize prefabrication, are seeking new opportunities to manufacture or assemble building components offsite. The process enables contractors to both reduce the number of workers on construction sites and more easily manage distancing and other COVID-19 protocols in offsite fabrication shops. But it is delivering other benefits too, including speedier installation, heightened worker productivity, robust quality control and less rework. When used wisely, prefabrication can even lower project costs.
“Nobody wants to take as long as they used to to build anything. It seems like every job we’re on is half the schedule it was 10 years ago,” said Brandon Jachimski, a Project Executive at Rosendin Electric. “Prefabrication gives us the ability to do a lot of work before a wall is installed or a slab is poured” and complete quality control checks on all prefabricated items.
When a site is ready for installations, Rosendin can dispatch a smaller crew (often half its typical size) and complete the work on site in less time.
“A feeder bend that may have taken a half hour or hour to bend on site is taking 15 minutes to complete in the shop and it can be installed in a fraction of the time,” Jachimski said.
For general contractors, prefabricated items, such as panelized walls, greatly speed progress onsite, Smith said. “You can get under the roof a lot earlier which allows you to start your rough-ins earlier, particularly for electrical service which gets you off the job faster. One of the largest costs you have as a general contractor is always general conditions and overhead costs. So prefabrication can lower both of those by tightening the schedule.”
DPR Construction, which has adopted a national goal to expand its use of prefabrication, has started “looking at projects from a whole jobsite level to identify new avenues for using prefabrication that we weren’t thinking about before,” said Langdon Lynch, DPR’s Northeast Region Prefabrication Leader.
That approach has led to identifying new prefab opportunities during design, such as prefabricated, multi-trade racks to support both electrical and mechanical lines, Lynch said. It has also prompted project teams to review, reimagine and improve processes for building commonly used elements.
For example, “we had developed a way of doing strut ceiling layouts in data centers,” he said. However as project teams progressed from one data center to the next, “we were able to refine the process from a stick-build approach to a modular approach to changing up how a jig worked with the module so it comes out of the jig as a fully-finished, prefabricated element that is being installed. It was a whole evolution.”
Successful use of prefabrication requires expanded early-stage collaboration among the project team to identify viable prefab opportunities and establish accurate requirements. It also requires expanded use of BIM. DPR and other contractors sometimes use BIM plans to generate 3D models of desired, prefabricated components to specify vendor/subcontractor requirements and determine appropriate costs and production times.
In the age of COVID, BIM along with heightened communication technologies and expanded coordination with project partners are becoming bigger and more critical components of projects, whether or not they employ prefabrication.
Wohlsen has expanded its use of BIM beyond panelization and MEP coordination to cover other aspects of construction. The enhanced planning and upfront collaboration is enabling project teams to avert more problems before they start work onsite. Meanwhile, virtual meeting platforms are enabling teams to more quickly address and resolve challenges that arise onsite, Smith said.
“The processes we were forced into by COVID-19 — the additional technology, the additional planning, the additional online meetings — are helping us identify items earlier, resulting in better production schedules and giving everybody a better product in the end,” he said.
Contractors searching for ways to heighten productivity, meet aggressive schedules and manage costs in the time of COVID and beyond are also changing the ways they source products and services.
“Given the current situation, we tend to look more globally at externalizing work,” said Bennett Rhodes, Maryland Division Manager at Rosendin Electric. “It’s not just prefab, it’s anything we can do to alleviate the need for men on site, especially during COVID.”
So, in addition to expanding its inhouse and contracted prefab work, Rosendin has been challenging vendors to find ways to streamline onsite operations. In some cases, the solutions are simple but effective. Some vendors, for example, deliver customized packages of materials to Rosendin worksites. Instead of delivering cartons of bulk parts, a vendor might drop individualized packages to each floor of a high-rise project, containing exactly the right number of light fixtures, electrical switches, etc. for that floor, with some prefabrication completed and all excess packaging removed.
The arrangement eliminates Rosendin’s need to send workers onsite to deliver materials and haul away trash, and also boosts worker productivity.
“The guys love it when they can walk into a room and every nut, bolt, light switch, receptacle, light fixture and piece of cable they need is in a bin ready for them so they can get to work and be productive,” said Gary Dilworth, Rosendin’s Area Superintendent.