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Inside Britco’s modular construction facility

0 727 Technology

by Russell Hixson

The weather outside was frightful in Agassiz, B.C. in December. Howling winds, ice and snow battered the area with temperatures dipping to -8 C.
Inside Britco’s modular construction facility

But workers inside Britco's massive modular construction facility were warm, dry and busy working along the production line.

Tim Epp, director of manufacturing, roamed the production floor, pointing out the many stations where projects take shape. Britco does its own plumbing, mechanical work, millwork and cabinet making. They even have an in-house electrical sub that has been with them for nearly 40 years.

"We don't really have a rotating door of workers," said Epp.

At a station where lumber was being measured and cut, Epp pointed to a small kiosk with a scanning gun and bar codes printed on cards. It's one of the ways Britco is able to track and assess its labour force.

The stations are scattered throughout the facility. Workers scan in every morning giving Epp data on where they are working, what project they are working on and when they switch.

"Right away we can tell if we will be over or under, if there is going to be a problem, if there is something we need to focus more attention on," Epp said. "The labour cost is the thing we have the most control over here in the facility."

This means Britco can easily implement changes and track results. Workers go to a vending machine to get new gloves, drill bits and other items allowing Epp to track consumables, which have gone down by 40 per cent.

The team also consults with doctors and occupational therapists to ensure workers are doing their tasks safely and efficiently. At the beginning of shifts crews even go through customized stretching routines for the movements they will be doing. In the rare event of an incident, Britco puts workers on modified duties until they are healed up.

This reduces the chances of re-injury and ensures the labourer doesn't miss work so they can still get paid, Epp explained.

This controlled environment allows Britco to give realistic prices up front that aren't subject to wide fluctuation, he added.

"We are not one of those companies that will change order someone to death," he said.

There are few surprises for a client. A full-time staff member takes hundreds of photos at every stage of a project and clients are encouraged to visit the factory. Epp said some clients have even paid to send their own quality assurance (QA) professional to oversee work.

"That's great and it is basically extra QA we didn't have to pay for. Our goal is to be as transparent and open as possible," he said. "The last thing we want is for someone to get a surprise when they receive our modules on site."

Repeat business is the goal as once the team builds a client building, if they are asked to repeat it, they only get more and more efficient, meaning more profit.

Inside the facility, crews were hard at work building a two-storey, high-tech passive house for Yale First Nation along with portable site offices. There are about 50 workers on the floor but during busier times this can ramp up to 160.

It's Britco's second time building a passive house. The first was for a site in rainy Bella Bella, B.C. They were able to complete a two-year project in around seven months.

The controlled, dry environment of the facility allows crews to get the precision necessary to achieve passive house performance. Crews can also perform blower tests so they know the building works before it ships.

With the same crew soaking up all that experience, the process gets easier and faster. But with a shifting construction environment, staying nimble is important and rare in the modular world, said Epp.

"There are companies similar to Britco," said Tom Faliszewski, manager of special projects and a trained architect. "We are a bit more broad based and do a whole variety of buildings. This has served the company really well over the years because different kinds of things come and go in the construction business."

He pointed out a shipping container being repurposed by crews to be an office for a remote site. Britco can rent these out which in the past has made up a healthy chunk of the business. But with low oil prices and fewer projects up north and in Alberta, things could change and the type of production infrastructure Britco has developed can change with it.

"Sometimes it is classrooms or office buildings or camp buildings," said Faliszewski. "We have figured out a way to do all those kinds of buildings in our production line."

He sees a great deal of room in the industry for more modular construction, especially for hotels or apartment buildings. He estimated modular construction currently it makes up about three to five per cent of projects in Canada. But it is growing much faster than traditional methods. Some jurisdictions in Europe have modular construction taking up 75 per cent of the market.

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