Why the Use of Prefabrication is Transforming the Construction Industry and the Electrical Contracting Sector is Leading the Way
On a conventional, by-the-numbers construction site, raw materials are brought to the location of a project and then field measured, modified, cut, and altered to the exact project requirements and installed in a sequential manner, eventually amounting to a finished product. Think of the building of a new subdivision in a suburban neighborhood; once the land is set aside for development, trucks arrive with lumber, cement, bricks, and all the other constituent elements needed to construct a new set of houses. Laborers and tradespeople then set to work building, assembling and installing everything on-site. Traditionally, this is how all complicated construction projects are built.
However, lately, there has been a shift away from this method of construction in favor of a process called prefabrication. But what precisely is prefabrication? What are its benefits? By way of answering these questions, Frank Averill, the founder, and Chief Executive of Averill Electric Co. Inc. provides a concise guide to prefabrication and how it is transforming both construction and electrical contracting to more efficiency.
What is Prefabrication?
According to Averill, “A simple definition of prefabrication is activities that can be productively completed away from the installation location or even away from the job site entirely. The process by which complex units, structures, or even entire buildings are assembled at a centralized location and then transported specifically-made to their destination for installation.” As an example, imagine a simple outdoor tool shed. Whereas most construction firms would typically show up at the location of the shed with the base components and proceed to build it from the ground up, a company utilizing prefabrication would construct the shed in its entirety at their facilities.
It would then be transported and set in place as a completed unit. In most cases, when the project is larger or more complicated than a shed, a construction company might prefabricate substantial sections of a project—usually called “sub-assemblies”—and ship them to the site to be pieced together. In the electrical industries, prefabrication consists of preassembling multi-part items into a singular whole assembly. For example, a simple outlet may consist of 20 different pieces. In conventional construction, all 20 pieces would be shipped to the job site individually and installed one piece at a time to create a field-installed assembly. With prefabrication, the 20 pieces can be assembled at a central location and shipped to the construction site as one piece, specifically designed, engineered, and preassembled for the exact job specifications.
A Short History of Prefabrication
Prefabrication is by no means a new concept in construction. One of the world’s oldest known engineered roadways, England’s “Sweet Track” dated at around 3800 BC, is thought by scholars to have utilized prefabricated timber sections built off-site and then brought fully completed to their ultimate destination. Closer to the present, in the 19th century, the British Empire made use of houses prefabricated in the United Kingdom that were then transported across the globe by steam-liners and wooden ships to help speed up the colonization of Australia.
Currently, the process of prefabrication is also being used in vehicle manufacturing. Companies that make cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships have long held that prefabricating their various components separately in different locations and bringing them together at the end to assemble the finished product is by far the most efficient business model. With the assistance of cutting-edge technology like 3D drawings and vanguard concepts like building information modeling, the same principle is now being applied to large-scale construction projects.
Prefabrication in Electrical Contracting
“Having the foresight, knowledge, and experience to implement prefabrication provides a significant benefit to a company’s productivity on any project” claims Averill. “Instead of workers meticulously building and installing electrical systems on-site, one piece at a time—often hampered by the activities of other tradespeople—electrical contractors can instead design and manufacture complex systems ahead of time. As a result, we can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a job.”
Once an effective design for an electrical item is created, the design is standardized and converted to a manufacturing process that the prefabrication shop can work from. Changes made to the project by owners and architects can easily be factored into these standard products. Electricians benefit by increased training and a better environment to work in and additional opportunities on more projects.
Some of the many electrical components that can be successfully prefabricated include panel boards, conduit bending, cable whips, in-wall devices and wiring assemblies, panel-board/transformer assemblies, support systems, conduit racks, temp power, and lighting- to name a few. Electrical contracting firms that have fully embraced the concept and properly invested in the technology can prefabricate large portions of materials needed for a typical project for maximum efficiency and benefit.
The Benefits of Prefabrication
According to Averill, the benefits have a major impact in the construction project that go beyond that of the electrical contractor. Large scale complex construction projects consist of several companies that work independently from each other but collaborate their efforts for the final product. By implementing prefabrication, Averill Electric has been able to decouple a sequence of work from a sequence of time on the project. Typically, the electrical work must wait for a building to be weather-proofed before wiring and electrical equipment can be brought to the job site. With prefabrication, large percentages of the labor hours can begin at the Averill Electric Prefab facility in the early stages of the project well before the schedule would dictate. This decoupling of labor hours results in less manpower on the job site and significantly reduces the project duration. The nature of prefabrication also reduces task duration due to its simplified process, which in turn, again reduces project duration.
With prefabrication, products are assembled in a controlled environment, away from the weather, activity and hazards of a busy construction site. Products are assembled on work benches designed for a more ergonomically improved and comfortable working platform than if these activities are done on a construction site, resulting in better quality-built assemblies done safer and more efficiently. The repetitive nature of prefabrication significantly increases reliability and consistency in production, resulting in a better-quality product. The prefabrication process allows for a better training opportunity for employees to work in a controlled environment under the supervision of an experienced shop foreman. There is more opportunity for one-on-one instruction without the distraction of busy and hazardous construction activity around the workers. When standardization is incorporated into the designs, there is less room for errors in the building process. The result of all these compounded efforts is consistency in quality
With prefabrication, several advantages exist, among them are fewer material returns, less material handling, less material wasted, improved labor efficiencies, and improved labor productivity. With Averill Electric prefabrication, products are packaged in a specific manner in which materials are sequentially installed. Materials are placed in “kits” that contain prefab assemblies packaged by area or by room. These kits are delivered to the exact location of the installation in a “just in time” manner. The kits contain all materials, fasteners, prefab drawings, and everything else needed to complete the work. Kits facilitate effective scheduling based on workflow and reduce task durations, resulting in the completion of work in less time compared to conventional construction methods.
All projects are designed for manufacturing, assembly and installation at the site. This process improves construction pre-planning and drives standardization into all our products and services, thereby providing the opportunity to achieve higher levels of efficiency and cost savings. Averill Electric puts a major focus on the design of their prefabrication systems, which results in a better-quality product, more quality control, and easier installation from conventional methods. Not only is the prefabrication built for the project specifications, but the drawings that are produced to compliment the prefabrication have a major impact for the installing electricians. When all the information needed for the installation is previously researched and provided, it is easier for the electricians to know exactly what materials need to be installed and in what exact location. This design process helps alleviate the burden of the electricians researching details trying to configure information that could be accurately relayed to them at the job site beforehand.
When we move our labor hours from a construction site to a controlled environment, we reduce the possibility of injury from tripping hazards, twist and bend injuries and other common injuries. With the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus, a different array of hazards is present when working on a site with multiple employers under different management teams. We mitigate these hazards by having safety and controls in place by following the guidelines set out by the CDC and further safety measures are put into place to keep the workers safe. Conventional construction standards require stock piling large amounts of materials from several trades which can slow the project flow and create hazards when workers need to maneuver around them. Workers install these materials, one piece at a time, which take on-site time, and in some cases working from ladders or scaffolding. When these parts are prefabricated and delivered to the site in a just-in-time manner, it reduces the possibility of being subjected to these hazards by reducing the amount of time to install the materials and reducing clutter in the work area. This results in a safer job site, and more productivity for all subcontractors as well.
Rubbish and unused materials create a hazard on construction sites. With prefabricated assemblies, there is less rubbish from packaging, less wasted materials/scrap and cleanup efforts, as all assemblies are shipped to the site specifically and ready to install. Material handling is greatly reduced as Averill Electric packages its assemblies for specific areas on the job site and are delivered in a just-in-time protocol. Waiting for the correct materials and tools is a common problem in construction. By pre-packaging the materials, everything that is needed is consolidated into a single kit and delivered where it is needed. When materials sit around on a job site for long periods of time, they tend to get damaged, lost, and obstruct progress as a whole negatively effecting everyone on the site. In short, prefabrication reduces labor hours on the job site, changes the way the building process is done, resulting in less injuries, a safer environment, and a more efficient project.
It is clear the environmental effect of conventional construction is a major driving force behind Averill Electric’s efforts. As Averill stated, “It bothers me to see the waste that goes on with traditional construction. When I see scrap material being loaded into a dumpster and hauled off to some landfill, I think of all the resources that were used to get that material to the job site. Take a simple piece of wood stud. The wood had to come from a tree, a tree that was cut down, usually by some large piece of equipment running on fossil fuel. The equipment has a heavy equipment operator running the machinery using labor resources. The tree is then hauled to a wood mill, using more fossil fuel and manpower to transport the tree. The mill uses manpower and other energy resources to produce the lumber. That lumber is then transported to a distributor, and so on, and so on. Even recycling materials is still utilizing multiple resources. The key is to reduce resource utilization. I would rather see all that effort put towards building a hospital, school or low-cost housing. If we can reduce the waste in constructing our buildings, we will reduce pollution, reduce the cost to build the structures we need and in turn increase the quality of life for everyone.”
Prefabrication benefits construction companies by reducing operating costs, increasing productivity, delivering better quality products, and creating a safer overall project. This process ultimately benefits the environment. By reducing the cost for building constructions, it creates a new set of consumers. It reduces the cost of the services we all need. In short, prefabrication saves all concerned parties time, money and energy. There is no better argument for adopting this new technology than that.
Frank Averill is the founder, owner, and chief executive of Averill Electric Co., Inc., a privately-held electrical contracting firm. Based out of Easton, Massachusetts, Averill Electric has been providing innovative, high-quality electrical design and construction services since its inception in 1996.
Among its more notable large-scale projects is the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, which at 100,000 square feet is New England’s largest social services development project, and features classrooms, a gymnasium, a chapel, a fully-equipped commercial kitchen, and an indoor aquatic facility. Averill Electric was responsible for installing its main service power generator, switchgear, emergency power network, fire alarms, lighting controls, security systems, as well as its outdoor soccer field lighting and score board. Averill Electric was also awarded the contract to oversee a retrofit and reinstallation of most electrical and communications systems in the Emerson College Colonial Building Dormitory, a ten story building located in the heart of Boston’s famed theatre district and containing the historic Emerson Colonial Theater. This $6 million gut and refit project required a team of 25 electricians and technicians to work for two years straight, installing a top-of-the-line 4,000-AMP power distribution system, brand new switchgear, state-of the-art security and alarm systems, as well as a 750-KVA roof-mounted emergency power generator, all the while leaving the surrounding theatre structure (which is pending Boston city-approved landmark status) pristine and virtually untouched.
Besides being an entrepreneur, a certified electrical contractor, and an outspoken proponent of small business, Frank Averill is also a philanthropist. He and his company are proud to lend their support to multiple charities, most prominently the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Shriners Hospital for Children, as well as conducting their own in-house winter coat and clothing drive each year. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Frank Averill noticed the terrible impact it was having on the ability of working families to keep food on the table and added the organization Feeding America to the roster of worthy causes directly supported by Averill Electric Co., Inc.