Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Today's Prefab Construction

prefab construction


Just as learning is becoming personalized, so is prefabricated, or “prefab,” construction. Driven by technology, the new methods of prefab offer cost-effective custom spaces and a building process that helps address serious construction challenges facing the education industry.

Tech-driven prefab is a far cry from the prescribed, expensive, and inflexible whole rooms or pods (sometimes found in healthcare and residence hall construction) that many equate with prefab. That more traditional prefab method requires very early decision making, as the prefab rooms or pods must be installed inside the project before the building enclosure is complete. In addition, the rest of the construction project must integrate with those rooms or pods, rather than the other way around. Hoists are typically required, the potential for injuries or damage is greater, and more site coordination is necessary. It fails to offer the flexibility most designers and clients require.

Today’s Options

Here, we focus on technology-driven, factory-manufactured prefab. This method sees the design, specification, pricing, manufacturing, delivery, and installation of a project all coordinated from one technology file. Clients see exactly what their space will look like and exactly how much it costs before building begins. All parts of a project are on a truck for delivery two to four weeks after the design is finalized, so decisions about the interior can be accommodated to the last minute—a boon for designers who constantly respond to and incorporate last-minute client-driven changes.

Pre-assembled, flat-stacked job components are brought to the project site. Modules are easily transported and installed, enhancing safety at the worksite. These solutions are DFD (design for disassembly) and offer a flexible system long after opening day. The process shrinks project schedules, curtails the demand on an already sparse labor pool, and gives the user exactly what they want.

A new CSI (Construction Specifications Institute) division, 134273–Integrated Interior Assemblies, recognizes this type of prefab construction and its associated output. Strictly for the interior, it allows a “warm shell” to be prepared onsite while the build-out is constructed off-site. Specific to that division, technology allows for complete customization of an entire interior buildout. That build-out could be a technology-enabled active learning classroom, a suite of administrative offices, a series of dry labs for data analysis, a makerspace, and/or whatever else is required.

This new prefab method is particularly beneficial to education construction in the U.S., where macro labor trends are widely known. This includes stricter immigration laws, devastating storms, retiring baby boomers, the 2008 recession, and the reality that for every five people retiring from the trades, only one is there to replace them.

Combine those trends with the fact that colleges and universities are reporting shorter construction windows. With more and more academic and community programming being offered year-round, there is less time to execute these renovation and renewal projects.

Many campuses are deciding to breathe new life into outdated buildings, rather than razing them and building new. It’s often too disruptive to complete any sort of work when students are around: cordoning off spaces with sheets of plastic and yellow tape, making sure dust is contained and construction activity is minimized. At the same time, these improvement projects are critical to maintaining institutional relevance and attracting the latest generation of students. And their expectations are wildly different from the incoming students just a decade ago.

For these reasons, and many more, project teams increasingly turn to prefabrication for different components of a build. From preassembled roof trusses to prefabricated exterior brick walls, and even to bathroom pods that are hoisted into the open shell of a residence hall, the recognized benefits are speed, quality control, safety, and cost certainty.

The Impact on Costs

Cost is also impacted several ways.

First, with a shorter project duration from start to finish, there is a reduction on general conditions and fees, such as labor costs, less time a construction trailer is needed onsite, and more. That means the tables are also turned on material versus labor costs.

Project pricing is based on the amount and quality of materials used. In a conventional buildout, approximately 30 percent of the project budget is spent on materials while 70 percent is spent on labor to assemble those materials on site. Using prefab interior assemblies, you’re spending 70 percent on high-performing materials, but only about 30 percent on labor. The interior build-out is an asset the owner keeps, versus a conventional build where 70 percent of their budget walks off the jobsite when the project is finished. This 70/30 comparison is an average and fluctuates based on labor costs in various markets.

In conclusion, 2018 is playing witness to a convergence of factors that will finally push technology-driven prefab over the adoption curve and into mainstream institutional construction. It’s a higher-quality and cost-effective approach to construction for educational spaces that are built to meet the exact needs of the client. Will the education construction industry respond?


The University of Iowa needed a high-tech learning commons. The only space available on campus was an old administration space in the library. It had structural steel support column every 9 feet in one direction and 13 feet in another direction. The architect on the project, Kent Lutz, doubted that that manufactured modules could be mass-customized to fit the old building.

“If you would have asked me before this process started, if I thought we could use a modular wall design to make these study rooms, I would have said it isn’t possible.” Lutz explains his reticence, “Because they are very standardized and rigid and very specific to maybe a corporate office environment with regular sized spaces. But now that I’ve done this, obviously everything was custom. I think that’s the magic of this system. Nothing is standard.”

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management July/August 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Betsy Maddox is director of Education for DIRTT Environmental Solutions. She can be reached at [email protected].