Prefab Construction Creating New Opportunities

In construction, the term ‘prefab’ can apply to many different levels of completion. At one end of the spectrum, it can be as simple as incorporating structural insulated panels into a primarily site-built project to speed up the process of enclosing the building. At the other end of the prefab spectrum are complete volumetric units shipped with all building elements (windows, doors, kitchens, bathrooms, etc.) already installed so that construction on site consists of simply stacking and joining the finished modules together to complete the building. Ideally, only bolting and interconnection of the building services are required at the site.

Somewhere in the middle you’ll find entirely panelized buildings like the ones we produce here at Element5. Our modular, prefabricated mass timber buildings are flat-packed and shipped to the site with window, door, and MEP openings pre-cut. Many connections are preinstalled for quick assembly and finishing.

As the construction industry shifts towards a greater degree of off-site manufacturing, there is a growing potential for cabinet makers and millworkers to tie into off-site prefabrication. Not only by working with volumetric constructors requiring cabinetry and millwork for completed units, but also with panelizers looking to expand their scope by being able to include modular kitchen and bathroom pods that can be inserted into assembled structures.  

As the off-site industry expands and evolves, it will disrupt the current industry and create new opportunities for traditional suppliers. In the 4-storey, 40-unit modular apartment building shown here, the flat-packed CLT structure can be assembled in approximately 20 days, a rate of about one floor per week. Although the structure is being built and enclosed quite quickly, the overall speed of the total build could have been improved even further if the finished kitchen and bathroom pods could have been dropped into the units as each floor goes up.

There is a growing need for suppliers of kitchen and bathroom modules that can be shipped as independent units and craned into place, seamlessly integrating with flat-packed solutions. If there had been a supplier capable of providing kitchen and bathroom pods to this project, it would have gone that route. Already there is a potential to supply hundreds of units per year.

The construction industry is going to continue to progress in this direction. Future builds will endeavour to do as much off-site work as possible, and that will include volumetric kitchen and bathroom units to complement the speed of the modular and panelized construction methods already in use today. Eventually, it will become a matter of competitiveness, and producers who can pivot to offer volumetric kitchen and bathroom solutions will have a competitive advantage over other suppliers due to speed.