If you think the latest reports on craft worker shortages is disheartening, just wait until you see what construction firms think of the training pipeline that’s supposed to ride to the rescue. Nearly half of those firms rate the training pipeline poor, and most construction officials (73%) now believe the labor situation will only get worse.
Small wonder, then, why so many firms now rely on prefabrication to keep productivity up and projects on track. Take glazing subcontractors. There was a time not so long ago that pre-glazed unitized systems were reserved solely for high-rise projects. The idea that a three- or four-story mid-rise should be anything other than site-built was never entertained. So a factory-built curtain wall assembly for a three-story building? It doesn’t pencil-out, right?
Don’t tell Billy Strait that.
Strait, a fenestration systems expert, has studied the industry closely since the late 1990s, most recently as regional vice president of Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope, North America’s largest supplier of fenestration systems.
Strait has observed a dramatic shift in construction practice over the last few years. “There was a time when unitized glazing systems were considered too expensive,” he says. “Today, the cost-benefit comparison is neutral. When you throw in reduced labor and scheduling certainty, the argument for prefab is compelling in a surprising number of applications.”
As an example, the industry veteran cites a major league ballpark, Globe Life Field, now under construction in Arlington, Texas. “The project was originally spec’d for traditional stick-built,” Strait says. “We suggested [that] factory-fabricated should be examined. They reconsidered their options, which proved fortunate. Poor weather delayed construction. Factory-built curtain walls allowed them to compress the schedule.”
Strait makes it clear that factory construction, for all its quality-control advantages, isn’t for every project. “There are pros and cons on both sides,” he says. “Stick-built is often the best way for a variety of reasons.”
So when does off-site fabrication make sense? Strait has five project qualifiers that can help guide decision-making:
- Three or more stories.
- 10,000 or more square feet of curtain wall. “More and more, 10,000 square feet is becoming the norm for architects. You have to look at a unitized solution,” Strait says.
- Chronic labor shortages.
- Dense urban location with a tight schedule. “It’s all about logistics. There isn’t space for parts and pieces to be delivered on-site. It’s easier to lift a pre-built assembly into place,” he says.
- Midwest or Northeast location. Winter messes up site-work construction, but a unitized solution can be installed at nearly any time.
The key to any project, of course, is an early assessment of prefab feasibility. “It’s wise to consult your fenestration supplier early, just as soon as the schematics are ready,” Strait says. “The trade-offs between one or the other system can then be accurately assessed.”
There is no silver bullet in the construction labor wars. But unitized glazing can help you leapfrog less resourceful designers with a proven solution that can help remove owner doubt and concern.
To learn more about using prefabricated unitized systems, visit obe.com.