Construction firms are relying more on prefab components such as walls and electrical devices for their projects. The use of prefabs can cut a project’s cost and the time needed to complete it as well as render the worksite safer.
DiMarco Constructors LLC has long used prefab wall panels on its apartment buildings and other construction projects. Depending on the job, the firm hires a subcontractor to put up the panels or purchases them from a builders supply firm and installs them. It can also make the panels on its own.
“We would have crews building panels right on-site and stacking them up,” says Anthony Soprano, DiMarco’s vice president for pre-construction services. “Then, we’d just tilt them up and build the buildings.”
The panels come with wooden or metal studs, and they have gaps for windows and doors. Using them allows construction crews to work on more than one part of a building’s floor at a time.
“While I’m doing my foundations, I could be building the walls,” Soprano explains.
Once the panels are up, workers can finish enclosing the floor. Now the electrical and mechanical components can be installed—free from the vagaries of the weather. The prefab components also cut the time needed to erect a building.
“You can put a building up in a couple of days, versus a few weeks,” Soprano says. “You do save time—which equates to money.”
DiMarco used prefab wall panels in the construction of Brooks Crossing Apartments, the University of Rochester’s 12-story mixed-use student housing facility, which was completed in 2014.
Prefabs also make their way into industrial and retail construction. DiMarco used concrete panels instead of concrete blocks for the walls of the new Walmart Supercenter in Penfield; Soprano says using the panels cuts the time needed to build the walls approximately in half.
Wall panels are not the only time-saving prefab element local contractors avail themselves of. O’Connell Electric Company Inc. fabricates some of the electrical components it uses in its construction projects. Originally, the company had the firms that supply its parts add on features that saved its electricians and apprentice electricians time in the field.
“They can put certain components together for you—we don’t have to do it ourselves—under a factory environment,” says O’Connell CEO Victor Salerno.
About three years ago, O’Connell decided to go one step further and set aside 3,200 square feet of space at its Henrietta facility for fabricating electrical components.
“We actually set up, call it a ‘manufacturing center,’ to do other things that we could prefab under a controlled environment of proper tools and temperature to attempt to substantially increase our productivity,” Salerno says.
O’Connell now fabricates electrical conduits, fixtures, panel boxes and other components for use on its construction projects. Its components first appeared in the eight-story Golisano Children’s Hospital, which opened its doors in 2015.
Some of O’Connell’s prefabs shared space on the hospital project with those installed by the John W. Danforth Co.
“We did all the ductwork and mechanical and plumbing piping systems in the building,” says Patrick Moran, the firm’s director of virtual design and construction.
Danforth fabricates the ductwork and piping that it uses in commercial, industrial and residential projects in its own shops, which range from Albany to Buffalo. While some workers cut and shape sheet metal into ducts, others cut, join and in other ways prepare pipes for installation.
Moran says prefabricating ductwork and plumbing components presents a number of advantages.
“Our benefits are safety (and) production,” he says. “We can get more production out of our controlled environment—the shop—than we can get out in the job site.”
That boost in productivity can also cut the time needed to complete a project—an important factor in today’s faster-paced construction market.
“The schedules to get this work done are getting shorter,” Moran notes. “The owner wants to get in sooner.”
Such advantages have led Danforth to use more and more prefabs on its projects. Ten years ago, the firm might have installed prefab water mains in a building and crafted the rest of its piping on-site. These days, it does much more in its shops.
“Now, we are prefabbing 95 percent of the piping that goes in that building,” Moran says. “We are prefabbing 100 percent of the ductwork.”
To keep up with the growing demand for prefabs, Danforth opened a state-of-the-art piping fabrication shop in Victor last December. The 7,600-square-foot shop includes a large clean room.
Though prefabricating construction components and assemblies presents many advantages, the practice poses challenges as well. For one thing, the prefab components have to be trucked to the job site and generally should not exceed the length and width of a truck’s bed, Moran says. Height restrictions also apply.
“Thirteen feet tall to get under bridges,” Moran says.
Then the components have to be the right size to be transported into and within the building.
While keeping their works within various sizing guidelines, fabricators also need to be sure that each piece can function next to and in concert with others—circuit breaker panels, heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts and hot water pipes might all have to occupy the same cramped room. One misplaced pipe or cable could result in costly construction delays.
Danforth, O’Connell and other local firms use building information modeling to reduce the risk of encountering such problems. BIM uses a 3-D computer program to show the inside of a building graphically as it is designed and the components—ductwork, wiring, pipes and so forth—that are to be installed inside it.
“We’re building that virtual model on a computer, so that everybody knows where everybody’s going to go,” Moran explains. “If certain systems won’t fit in the area as drawn on the contract documents by the engineer … we can fix it or re-route stuff or resize stuff or relocate stuff.”
By resolving such problems on the computer screen, construction firms can avoid the cost of doing so on the job site.
As well-developed as local construction component fabrication operations might be, Peter Stoller, executive director of the Rochester New York Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, says other parts of the country are more advanced. Stoller just returned from a regional NECA conference at which the head of a Florida electrical contracting firm described his fabrication operations.
“They pretty much build and assemble everything in the shop and then have it shipped out to the job site,” Stoller says. “It’s more or less color-coded—just plug it in.”
Stoller says the use of prefab components should become more common in the future—even in older buildings.
“As technology is increasing and customers are looking to update their facilities with more energy-efficient products to lower their utility costs … that demand is growing,” he says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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