What is Prefab Construction?
Prefabricated construction (prefab) is a method of construction that is becoming more common in many parts of North America. Prefab construction is when buildings, or sections of a building, are manufactured in advance and can be easily shipped or assembled. This construction style takes place in a factory setting where many of the inconveniences of on-site construction such as weather delays and safety hazards are eliminated. Although prefab construction is gaining popularity, it is not a new method and can be dated back to 3800 BCE to the prefabricated Sweet Track assembled in England. The popular belief now is that prefab construction is not a passing trend. The benefits of prefab are starting to gain traction as the factory setting allows for more efficient and much safer development than on-site construction.
How is Prefab Different From Modular Construction?
The terms prefab and modular are sometimes used interchangeably but they are not the same. Modular construction is just one type of prefabricated construction. Prefab is any construction process that does not take place on-site, while modular construction specifically consists of the building of repeated sections called modules being built in the factory and then assembled on site. The modules act as rooms in the buildings they are constructed for and are usually very similar as they undergo the same factory process.
Modular construction must be carefully planned because once the process begins it is difficult to make changes and customizations. The reason for limited customization is because of the process they use to build the modules. It is a factory process that is repeated for each module so it is especially efficient for buildings with multiple identical rooms like schools and hospitals. Some common uses of modular construction consist of:
- Healthcare buildings
- Educational institutions
- Offices and shelters for industrial, forestry and oil workers
- Residential construction
Variations of Prefab Construction
Since prefab construction is the process of building anything in a factory setting instead of on-site, there are multiple sectors of construction that utilize the process.
- Modular Construction - As discussed, modular construction is a type of prefab construction consisting of modules that can be assembled to structures on site.
- Panelized Construction - This method involves the development of flat panels under factory conditions. The panels are constructed in the factory to then be installed on site. Panelized construction is most often used for home building as it allows for more customization than modular construction while still being faster and more efficient than standard on site home building.
All prefabricated construction techniques can be used with several materials such as timber, steel and concrete. Both variations of prefab construction are beginning to implement 3D printing in the factory as it has made the process more efficient. 3D printing has made major leaps in technology as you can print with numerous materials like metal and concrete, instead of just plastics. The first 3D printed house which used 3D printed concrete is standing in Germany today and may pave the way for an increase in the use of 3D printing for residential and commercial prefabricated structures.
Taking Advantage of the Opportunity
Prefabricated construction cannot replace on-site construction for every type of project but it could become the primary approach over the next several years. As listed above, there are many sectors of construction that greatly benefit from prefab such as healthcare, education, residential and more as the benefits of prefab construction are hard to ignore. Financial savings, reduced time of construction, and safer conditions outline the benefits of both types of prefabricated construction methods (modular and panelized). Those who work in industries that are transitioning to prefabricated construction may look to take advantage of the opportunity while it’s still early.