How prefab is changing construction

By Dominic Ellis
Shaun Hughes, Regional Sales Manager Southern UK for Victaulic, outlines how prefabrication is changing the face of construction

It’s always rewarding to see the feedback from a client who employed prefabrication on a project for the first time. Even in the UK, where there has been a significant uptake in prefabricating structures over the last decade, clients still dismiss it as an unnecessary extra step in the construction process. 

And it’s understandable, a lot of work will have gone into getting the project to where it is and it’s easy to wonder why they should add another phase when one could simply transport the products on-site and start building? Or indeed, they simply don’t consider prefabricating at all. However, and I’m confident this is where construction will head, working with clients to build prior to the worksite, will continue to grow in uptake and success. 

The multiple lockdowns and social distancing protocols implemented as a result of COVID-19 has actually provided a spark for a number of contractors to select prefab. There was a sudden urgency to construct in the crisis: hospitals were needed to treat the sick and data centres were required to cover the increase in internet usage that came with home working and extended periods indoors. Prefabrication’s proven time and labour savings were needed at a time of crisis; there is a good chance we will never look back now. 

Save time and money through prefab

While prefabrication has plenty of benefits, including mitigating risk by decreasing labour and reducing material handling on busy worksites, the reason we advocate for clients to take the extra step within the project boils down to two primary factors: cost and time. For example – and I will point to piping as that is my area of expertise – to install a section on the top of a roof, a crane is required on site. Using ‘traditional’ methods, different parts will be delivered at separate times to the site, forcing the crane to stay in place for the duration of the project in order to complete construction. However, if the different parts are prefabricated and delivered onsite as a whole, the crane is only needed for that single day. 

Furthermore, and this is often a huge benefit for urban projects, prefabricating will lead to fewer large transportation vehicles entering the jobsite. Not only is this a bonus for the environment, it also serves to produce a more efficient jobsite. A better schedule can be developed: the construction site team will know where a section of piping arriving on a certain day needs to be installed. That simplicity and clarity in approach cannot be underestimated. 

A good analogy to help explain the concept of prefabrication is to compare it to flatpack products. You don’t necessarily need to know how to make the desk (or section of piping in the case of the installer); simply follow the instructions (drawings) and put the pieces together. 

Education is key to progress

At Victaulic, we’ve realised that to effectively change opinion, education will be key. Although prefabrication is hardly a new concept, it is a departure from the “traditional” process most professionals have come accustomed to following. We need a culture change in the industry: a move away from thinking that transporting every part as quickly as possible to the jobsite will be the best solution. We’re starting to see this change take place more in industrial buildings – where the property owner is often a business constructing a new factory or distribution centre – rather than in commercial buildings, which are usually rented out as office space.  

Noting the growing importance of prefabrication, we took it upon ourselves to invest in dedicated specialists to support clients. Across multiple markets around the world, our specialists advise customers as they build their piping systems on the prefab site. We’re also able to provide our clients with 3D digital drawings prior to prefabrication via our global Virtual Design and Construction team so they have a visual representation of the piping solution.

Of course, getting clients to try different ways of working is always a learning process, which is why we have found it so important to have trained specialists at hand. Clients are naturally nervous that elements not made on site won’t fit the specifics of the build and may need costly adjustments when they arrive. 

Fortunately, Victaulic products are ideally placed to overcome any such hurdles. Unlike traditional methods of pipe joining such as welding or flanging (which once fixed in place are extremely tricky to change), Victaulic’s plug-and-play Installation-Ready couplings allow for easy readjustment as each coupling only requires two bolts to be tightened on either side. So, if minor adjustments are needed the method itself is still time and cost effective.

Future outlook

We’ve already seen significant growth in uptake over the last decade or so and as the offer to clients is developed, I expect pick up to continue to rise. And with every project we complete with a client we look to learn and improve our prefabrication offer. After each project, we perform a post-mortem with the client, working together to see what went well and what could be adapted to be more successful. 

By undertaking this step, by understanding the needs of our clients, our offer can improve with their feedback. Our ambition is, and we hope to see this come true over the coming years, that as our prefabrication service evolves, more of our clients will decide to take on the new method with us. 

Shaun Hughes is Regional Sales Manager Southern UK, for Victaulic 

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