New prefabrication techniques reshaping West Michigan construction industry


The facade of WMU's six-story, 200-unit residential facility was prefabricated. Courtesy Triangle Associates

Prefabrication, also referred to as “off-site construction,” allows various building elements to be manufactured and assembled in a factory and then erected on a construction site. Anything from light fixtures to whole multilevel exterior walls can be prefabricated. Although this process is not new to construction, the way prefabrication is being used has drastically streamlined the building process. The facade at Western Michigan University’s Arcadia Flats serves as an example.

Triangle Associates, alongside Bouma Prefab and Stantec Architecture, decided to implement a complete prefabricated building envelope system for WMU’s student housing facility, the first of its kind in West Michigan’s construction market. As a result, the six-story, 200-unit residential facility reaped multiple benefits.

Streamlined schedule and logistics

Constructed away from the job site, prefabrication is not reliant on the timing of other on-site activities. The ability to construct a building’s envelope in conjunction with the steel framework allows the project to multitask efforts.

“When we prefabricated all of Arcadia Flats’ facade, the time spent on the job was a fraction of what it would have been if we had to build each panel on-site,” said Matt Novak, leader of project management at Triangle. “But this kind of collaboration requires better upfront planning.”

Collaboration among the three companies started almost a year before Arcadia Flats broke ground, Novak said.

“The prefabrication process on this project was successful because we were able to get in early and work with the team on a design-assist delivery method,” said Dennis Moomey, vice president at Bouma Prefab. “Months of detail work were put in before the first panel was ever produced. The use of BIM allowed virtual objects to be designed to fit properly in their final installed location.”

Prefabricated pieces are not shipped until they are ready to be installed, saving space on the job site. What normally needed scaffolding and lifts to assemble steel studs piece by piece now only requires a single crane. Additionally, there is less congestion with fewer workers on-site, further reducing jobsite interference.

Minimizing waste

In addition to technology, prefabrication is driven by lean manufacturing, which focuses on minimizing construction and fabricated waste. Traditionally on a steel stud building envelope, standard factory parts would be cut to create a custom product resulting in excess scrap. With prefabrication, each steel stud is rolled off a coil and cut to an exact dimension, minimizing wasted material. All excess materials are then recycled in-house.

Certainty of outcome

Another advantage of prefabrication pertains to quality. With a list of specific quality assurance measures in place, the product can be inspected and rectified before it gets shipped to the job site.

“This allows for what was typically on-site testing to occur in the factory as it’s being manufactured,” Novak said.

Since prefabricated pieces are built in a controlled environment, this also decreases the implications of weather conditions. There is no need to worry about wear and tear of equipment, or compromised materials such as cement, sealants and paint.

Building the future

As the construction industry continues to look for new and innovative ways to become safer, more efficient and improve quality, some of the techniques applied at Arcadia Flats will help to pave the way into the future.

“This is going to be more and more prevalent in the future, and it all started with technology driving its wedge into our industry,” Novak said. “This is a new way to build buildings.”

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