By: Elisa Palmaporras
During the pandemic, off-site manufacturing has increased in popularity
Oscar Wilde once said, “Expect the unexpected.”
Some might say it took them by surprise. Others might say they saw it coming, but we can all agree on at least one thing—the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives and our lifestyles. We’ve all been thrown into a whirlpool of uncertainty and change. However, that isn’t all the pandemic has brought us. It has also forced us to innovate. Change can be scary and intimidating, however, it can push us to create new models and adapt to growing trends.
The pandemic has disrupted and upended many industries, one of them being the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry. In order to keep construction workers healthy and to progress the industry safely, new questions need to be answered. Some of these include:
How can we safely build a structure with so many workers on-site at the same time?
How much control can we have when constructing a building during a pandemic?
How can we decrease our losses and costs?
In the midst of all these questions and unknowns, an answer is surfacing—off-site manufacturing.
Before the pandemic, off-site manufacturing was already becoming a popular architectural choice and it has continued to be more widely adopted during the pandemic. A benefit of off-site manufacturing is it provides a controllable work environment by transferring the construction process to a factory, unlike working at the job site where there can be unmanageable factors.
But is control the only benefit off-site manufacturing brings? What about the quality of the building? Traffic? Precision? The overall safety of the workers?
There are many advantages to off-site manufacturing, including the following:
1. Better Safety and Working Conditions.
Constructing a building in the traditional way comes with its fair share of risks. Construction workers are operating heavy machinery, working at great heights, handling dangerous materials, or working outside in hot weather. Safety and health have always been important to this industry. For example, all workers on-site must wear protective headgear and bright-colored clothes to be more easily spotted. But could it be even safer?
With the shift towards off-site construction, the amount of time required to work at the job site decreases. That alone reduces the chances of accidents and health hazards, due to the fact that off-site manufacturing is in a controlled environment.
A controllable environment allows project managers to think of ways to reduce accidents. Windows could be pre-installed in modules and interior walls could be built on horizontal tables rather than scaffolds that could endanger workers. This also allows the team to focus on their professional skills without worrying about working in dangerous conditions, thereby increasing productivity.
2. Reduced traffic and disruptions to residents.
Limited traffic and vehicles at the work site is another advantage to off-site manufacturing.
Instead of traveling back and forth making multiple deliveries, workers can now carry the almost-finished building in one sweep to the physical site. This is also beneficial to residents living around the construction area because it means less blockage of access to routes and fewer noisy vehicles.
Of course there will be noise and traffic on the days the building is delivered, but these are usually short-lived. Overall, off-site manufacturing brings a lot more benefits than disadvantages in this area.
3. Less Construction Waste and Improved Air Quality.
Construction and demolition (C&D) debris often includes materials such as concrete, wood, metals, plastic, glass, trees, stumps, and rocks which need to be disposed of when clearing a site. According to a waste characterization report called “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Fact Sheet,” written by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “600 million tons of C&D debris were generated in the United States in 2018, which is more than twice the amount generated by municipal solid waste.”
In traditional construction, when the project is done on-site, all the extra materials are sent to the dump or landfill which negatively impacts the environment. Off-site manufacturing provides the chance to optimize the usage of materials, thus decreasing waste. Construction in a controlled environment allows for the workers to accurately calculate the material required for one project, meaning it minimizes cost for the company.
In addition, off-site methods provide the push needed to find new models and/or strategies to improve air quality. Since there will be fewer deliveries and workers commuting to the various on-site construction places, air pollution is minimized around the local sites, close to where the construction is being done. Shifting most of the work to a factory also provides the opportunity for construction companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
4. Weather conditions won’t get in the way.
Traditional construction methods by nature take time, and sometimes, the weather can negatively impact the process. Inclement weather can slow progress, and materials can be damaged by rain, storms, snow, or even by the heat.
By having the construction processes shifted into a manufacturing facility, weather disturbances are no longer a factor. This can help complete the project in less time. And since the materials are better protected inside a facility, production quality remains high.
5. Better Quality Control.
As mentioned previously, the materials are efficiently purchased for each project and are better protected inside an off-site facility, but another benefit also occurs.
With the help of machinery, construction workers can assemble prefabricated units. The material quality remains high, and the precision increases due to a decrease in potential human error.
”Expect the unexpected.” The pandemic was a surprise to the construction industry, and we had to pivot quickly to adapt to new mandated working conditions including masks and social distancing. Fortunately, there were already systems in place such as off-site manufacturing that we could begin to use more widely to keep the construction industry working. As a result, we’ve begun to see more of the benefits that off-site construction methods bring to the industry and to the environment.
There is a new normal as we move forward, one in which the efficiencies we have gained are here to stay. Off-site manufacturing is one of those improvements that will continue to positively impact the construction industry.