Michael Gustafson is currently the senior industry strategy manager for structural engineering at Autodesk, responsible for establishing long-term Industry strategy for structural analysis, design, detailing and fabrication. Gustafson practiced structural engineering at Ellerbe Becket and holds a bachelor's of science degree and a master's of science degree from the University of Minnesota, as well as an MBA from the Michael J. Coles College of Business.
When many people hear the term prefabrication, they think of uniform, unattractive tract housing—the “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” derided in Malvina Reynolds’ satirical anthem. But in fact, design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) has the potential to help design and construction firms create innovative projects that bring clients’ visions to life in new ways.
Bryden Wood, a longtime Autodesk client and multidisciplinary design company with offices in London, St. Albans and Singapore, has been a pioneer in industrialized construction, putting manufacturing principles into its construction practices for more than two decades. Jaimie Johnston, director and head of global system for Bryden Wood, said misconceptions surrounding industrialized construction are so pervasive that, until recently, the firm was hesitant to even bring up the method in conversations with clients.
“I think if we had said to clients, ‘We’re about to do some DfMA,’ it would have blown their minds, so we didn’t tell them that,’” Johnston said. “Instead, we said, ‘Here’s our process, and we will pursue the best outcomes for you,’ and it turned out that DfMA was the answer. And by that time, it seemed like a natural conclusion. We never tried to force it on clients because we think they wouldn’t have been ready for it.”
For professionals with such a mindset, the following four benefits of industrialized construction may come as a surprise.
1. Improved Productivity
It’s probably not a shock that prefabrication can be less expensive than on-site construction. But the productivity benefits of DfMA go far beyond simple cost savings. By standardizing build components and simplifying assembly, Bryden Wood has designed projects that can be erected by smaller teams of lower-skilled workers. This not only cuts construction costs, but also speeds the firm’s time to market, and—if DfMA were to be adopted more widely across the industry— could help address the infrastructure backlog that plagues countries around the world.
“We’ve got so many design problems to tackle, and so much infrastructure to improve, we fundamentally can’t keep up unless we shift from the traditional construction models and get into a much more industrialized, high-productivity space,” said Johnston. “There’s a complete mismatch between the size and the skills of the population we’ve got and the [infrastructure and buildings] pipeline that’s heading in our direction. It’s a massive global problem.” According to some estimates, the industry will need to build 5,000 more new buildings every day to meet the challenges of rapid urbanization and population growth.
One of Bryden Wood’s most inventive creations is the “factory in a box”—an assembly kit for a pharmaceutical factory that can be shipped anywhere in the word. By creating a step-by-step assembly process for such a sophisticated building type, the firm reduced the size of the on-site team by 75 percent and cut installation time from 12 weeks down to only 5.
2. Increased Emphasis on Client Vision
Contrary to stereotypes, projects with prefabricated components are not inherently unattractive or “cookie-cutter.” Bryden Wood prides itself on creating client-specific designs that are every bit as aesthetically pleasing and unique as buildings constructed with traditional methods. “If you look at anything else that we buy or use—everything that is manufactured—no one ever expects product design not to be beautiful,” Johnston said. “Everyone expects things that are manufactured or industrialized to be creative, innovative, interesting and beautiful. And yet, we cannot make that mental leap between that being achievable in every other sector, and that being brought into the buildings sector. People just go back to the nightmare visions of prefabrication—awful, clunky, same-y looking buildings. That’s the thing we’re constantly trying to break through.”
Design for manufacture and assembly creates a subtle shift in thinking, Johnston said, leading to a mindset that prioritizes the client’s vision. “If you go to a [traditional] jobsite and ask what the client is trying to achieve, they’re going to say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just doing some pipe work here.’ Whereas, in manufacturing, the voice of the customer is absolutely sacrosanct, and everyone knows what the vision is,” Johnston said.
3. Reduced Health, Safety & Environmental Impacts
As client expectations evolve in the face of climate change, sustainability is a growing concern for practically all stakeholders in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) fields. Industrialized construction helps to mitigate adverse impacts by streamlining the build process. Research data suggests that design for manufacture and assembly can reduce site waste by up to 90 percent through better stock control, can reduce neighborhood pollution and congestion by up to 20 percent due to fewer traffic movements to and from building sites, and can cut energy use at temporary site locations by up to half. Additionally, the reduced need for on-site labor leads to an 80 percent reduction in incidents, and the reduced traffic to and from the jobsite cuts nearby road accidents by 20 percent.
In short, industrialized construction has been shown to be safer to humans and less harmful to the environment than traditional building methods.
4. Support for Innovation
The AEC industries are home to some of the world’s most creative minds. But too often, this creativity is wasted on solving procurement problems and overcoming logistical hurdles, when it should instead be focused on creating innovative, high-performance, human-centered designs. By bringing a level of standardization to the manufacture, shipping and assembly of build components, industrialized construction frees up professionals to put their talents to the highest possible use for their clients, society and the environment.
“We talk about continued improvement and constant reinvention, but a lot of people never get to the next step because they’re always going back to the start and relearning something that someone probably solved on a previous project,” Johnston said. “You get to the end of a project, and teams disband, and none of that learning gets retained.”
Johnston likens industrialized construction platforms to the iPhone—a powerful tool in its own right that ended up inspiring creativity on countless development teams. “The platform becomes a repository for all that collective knowledge, so you spend more time on the bits where you really add creative skill and value in the design space, as opposed to reinventing the wheel every time you go to a new project site,” he said. “The potential is exciting.”