Between 2010 and 2016, U.S. contractors tripled their amount of project work using prefabrication, reports Bloomberg BNA. Additionally, “during that period, contractors have gone from investing about 12 percent to 20 percent of their labor hours in prefabrication,” according to the news outlet.
The country’s incredibly shrinking pool of skilled construction labor across every trade plays a big role in the shift. As the market has heated up, the AEC community is starting to realize that all the tradespeople who left the field during the Great Recession are not coming back, and more retire every day. There is not enough talent coming in from the vocation and trade schools to even maintain current levels of tradespeople. This problem isn’t only limited to “hot” construction markets like San Francisco, Seattle, Miami and Boston. It’s hitting places like Denver and Nashville equally hard.
The AGC’s 2016 “Workforce Survey” showed that 13% of respondents had increased their use of offsite prefabrication during the past year because of difficulty in filling positions.
Bathrooms provide a clear example of the labor saving advantages of offsite pre-fab. “The bathroom is the most complex part of a hotel room,” says Seattle-based developer, Greg Steinhaeur, president of American Life. “You have many different trade professionals working in a small space, plus lots of materials having to go up the lift, to build them.”
“Historically, the number of trades and amount of coordination required in a bathroom exceeds pretty much any other area in a building,” adds Les Bluestone, partner of Blue Sea Development Company, LLC, in New York City.
From luxury hotels to public housing, building a typical bathroom requires sequencing 10 or more construction trades – including electrical, plumbing and finishing work ranging from drywall and painting to mirror hanging – all working in an area of about 50 to 100 square feet.
With many trades coming and going in a confined area, there’s substantial risk of damage to previously completed work. Bathroom rework accounts for about 60% of the punch-list in most multi-housing projects and can cause weeks of schedule delays. Pre-fab, in contrast, can be done in a controlled environment, with a few skilled workers overseeing less skilled laborers. Building owners benefit by being able to collect rents earlier, reducing financing costs, and achieving a high-quality project – a triple win!