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Can the traditional construction process be replaced by modern manufacturing techniques?

Research Project Name

The Prefab City

What We Did

We explored modular construction trends and technology to understand their potential impact on the architecture, design, and construction industry. In the first phase of our research, we documented existing prefabricated (prefab) construction methodologies and applications. We conducted site visits and interviews with manufacturers to understand the current state of the industry; and collaborated with schools and leading manufacturers to understand the financial, ecological, and regulatory dimensions of manufacturing for prefab construction. In the second phase of our research, we identified potential new markets and uses for emerging prefab technologies.

The Context

Current construction techniques do not reflect new innovations and technology in manufacturing and construction. We are building now in largely the same way we built in the past. We believe this is a missed opportunity, and take lessons from the consumer products industry as inspiration. Consumer products companies excel at maximizing efficient manufacturing techniques, often predicting new methods before consumer demand requires it. In contrast, the construction industry has long struggled to apply new methods and technologies industry-wide.

The Results

Today, prefab construction methods only marginally leverage the benefits of modern manufacturing processes. We believe the construction industry can move beyond fabricated/off-site construction toward “true” manufacturing of the built environment. We documented our research in a publication, Architecture for Manufacturing and Assembly (AfMA), which is our proposed roadmap for achieving the full potential of manufacturing for construction. The publication summarizes the technical aspects of prefabricated construction, and provides guidelines for architects and engineers in the planning, design, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of prefab construction projects.

What This Means

We believe true manufacturing for construction can bring not only cost and quality transformations, but also social and industrial changes through universal infrastructure and mass customization. Some of the advantages we see include:

Reducing ecological impact: Construction sites are notorious polluters, contributing to air, noise, and water pollution, among others. A lean, holistic integration of design, procurement, manufacturing, and assembly processes into planned manufacturing centers could potentially reduce pollution caused by construction worldwide.

Planning for future reuse: The reuse of buildings constructed with prefab techniques will be facilitated by easy dismantling and repurposing off-site manufactured buildings or portions of buildings.

Leveraging the benefits of globalization: By supplying parts and building materials through supply chain systems, we can improve the quality of the finished product by manufacturing entire portions of a building in controlled environments, rather than on construction sites.

Accommodating custom-designed efficiencies: An automated, mass manufacturing process will increase efficiency and cost competitiveness, while also providing increased opportunities for user customization in the design and manufacturing process.

What’s Next?

We stand at the brink of a potential new era of construction manufacturing. We will continue to explore multiple construction disciplines, product manufacturers, and governmental agencies to further define the future of prefab construction. Additional efforts will go into developing practical guidelines that will assist architects, consulting partners, and clients to transform the future of construction to be more efficient, cost-effective, and resilient.

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John Adams, YoungSeop Lee, Kai Chow, Reg Prentice, Olivier Sommerhalder

Year Completed