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Off-site construction techniques gaining momentum

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by Russell Hixson last update:Feb 14, 2015

In a world of high construction costs, labour shortages and environmental concerns, some construction experts are envisioning an industry where the majority of construction work is done off site rather than at a jobsite.
Off-site construction techniques gaining momentum

Mark Taylor, vice president of permanent modular construction at PCL, said despite the numerous advantages, the Canadian industry has been slow to embrace the practice.

"The construction industry is a dinosaur. We are still doing things the same way we were 1,000 years ago," he said.

Off-site construction limits site construction as much as possible in favour of building the majority of a structure at a manufacturing facility and then assembling on site later.

Taylor explained that this has numerous advantages.

The world's aging population means a loss of a skilled labour force. There is also reduced interest amongst youth in building trades.

Off-site manufacturing jobs require less training and allow for more flexible schedules.

It opens up a huge opportunity to attract women to the construction field, who are more likely to feel comfortable working in a manufacturing environment than at a construction site.

It also reduces a huge number of variables that result in higher costs and uncertainty on projects.

Weather, quality assurance, tight spaces, traffic, material waste and labour quality consistency can all be more easily controlled in a manufacturing facility rather than at a jobsite. The result can rapidly speed up projects and cut costs.

"We have to show people the advantages and the return on investment," he said.

Lorne Derkson, president of Alliance Truss Group, offered his perspective from the manufacturer's point of view.

He specializes in pre-fabricating wood frames.

He noted that the idea of off-site construction is still new to many in the industry.

Educating owners and developers has been a challenge.

Both Derkson and Taylor spoke at this year's annual International Wood Symposium in Vancouver, B.C.

Derkson noted that in midrise developments, the initial costs are very competitive and, in most cases, savings compound as it moves forward as huge amounts of time are saved.

However, single family residences, where traditional on-site framing companies can work long hours, the savings become more difficult to compete with.

The framing companies also don't pay for offices, power, major machinery or vehicles, making costs even lower.

Derkson said for all owners, developers and general contractors, it comes down to a value decision.

They want to know how much something is going to cost, especially when considering an alternative technology. But, many builders don't always track the overall savings of using a technique, which can make it a harder sell.

"The biggest problem we have is an overhead disadvantage," he said.

Fortunately, many companies and owners understand that the longer a project takes, the more expensive it becomes, so the prospect of decreasing building time using pre-fabricated structures becomes more appealing. This also helps when a project has a significant deadline.

Both added that one the game changers has been building information modeling (BIM) technology.

It cuts down on design costs and allows off-site companies to get involved in the process early on to accelerate a project and mitigate variables.

Taylor said the industry must be more collaborative, demonstrate the value of off-site to owners and think about off-site work early in a project.

"OSC is coming whether the industry likes it or not," he said.

For a video of Mark Taylor talking about off-site construction, click here.

last update:Feb 14, 2015

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