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Industrialized Construction in Post-COVID-19 School Construction

Prefabrication of components for school construction

Overcoming new and existing challenges

Dara Douraghi, VP of Architecture and Engineering at Project Frog, talks about the role of Industrialized Construction in post-COVID-19 school construction in Reader’s Choice issue 2020 of School Construction NEWS.

School construction has always been a challenge, from financing and long approval cycles to short build windows and limited budgets. Add in a worldwide pandemic, and schools, from K-12 to higher education, are in an even more precarious position. Today, schools are scrambling to rearrange their campuses to accommodate social distancing, introduce and maintain new cleaning and sanitization processes, devise safe transportation methods to and from school, and more. 

The new normal created by COVID-19 will impact both the new construction and modernization of existing facilities as we attempt to find ways to create safe learning spaces for our students.

Re-imagining our Spaces

Optimized classroomSome initial solutions have focused on technology as the ultimate response to safe learning spaces, but depending solely on technology, like using sensors, tracing, and tracking applications, may not solve the whole problem.

In reality, it will be a hybrid approach and solution, relying on technology to provide needed tracing and data for monitoring spread, along with a new approach to the way learning environments are designed. For example, reducing the density in classrooms with fewer students will accommodate social distancing. Furthermore, in warmer parts of the country, we can design outdoor spaces that can be used for learning and spill-out zones. Modern heating and cooling equipment can also be integrated to help mitigate the spread of viruses, common flu, and colds.

While COVID-19 has created complex problems and issues all in a few months’ time, immediate solutions must be put in place to reverse or mitigate its impact. Simple, quick, and cost-effective solutions such as portable or modular classrooms are almost always the first recommendation. While historically many districts felt portables were an easy, albeit temporary, answer to the need for additional classrooms, these structures are inflexible in their design, do not age well, and are not desirable, permanent solutions. Utilizing new methods and innovations based on the principles of Industrialized Construction (IC) can take both short- and long-term demands into account, offering much-needed resolutions.
Unlike prefabricated or portable buildings, architects can use IC solutions for design flexibility, giving them the opportunity to arrange components, easily meeting each school’s specific needs. With IC’s scalable approach, the traditionally long design and build cycles are eliminated, translating into more completed projects in less time and in turn enabling a quick reduction in classroom density.

El Sol - Project FrogFor example, new school buildings were recently constructed for a district in Southern California using an IC approach. Relying on a Kit-of-Parts system, where building components are pre-designed and pre-engineered, allowed the architects to focus on project-specific design, to create flexible and convertible learning spaces opening directly to the outside with outdoor learning zones instead of relying on internal corridors for general circulation. While not initially designed for social distancing protocols, this approach can be used to address those requirements in schools, a critical component for returning to any semblance of normal.

Impacts on, and Challenges for, New Construction

The current pandemic is not the only challenge school and general construction is facing. According to an executive survey conducted in April by McKinsey, “US construction output growth in 2020 could range between zero and -8% depending on the severity of the outbreak”.

Our skilled workforce is disappearing and its demise will be accelerated by COVID-19. The average age of construction workers is increasing, and fewer younger people are choosing trades as a career. Skilled labor is highly impacted by economic cycles and, typically, those who leave the industry during recessions and downturns, don’t necessarily return. With COVID-19, construction companies and general contractors will have fewer workers on-site, in order to honor social distancing requirements and ensure sanitary conditions, affecting productivity and leading to even longer construction schedules. This trend may become the “new normal,” further impacting the industry.

What IC offers is a repeatable, rules-based design process, with known and recorded parts and pieces captured in a Kit-of-Parts, enabling a predictable, scalable manufacturing and a coordinated construction process. This is the type of innovative approach needed to deliver design and building solutions more quickly. By developing an IC roadmap at both organizational and project levels, leveraging technology to manage an end-to-end design/delivery process geared towards scalability and growth, school construction will benefit from increased efficiency, and reduced risk and project cost.

Another recent McKinsey article noted the future will require close management of movement and interactions of workforces which “further strengthens the case for off-site construction, beyond the existing quality and speed benefits. In fact, we expect to see contractors gradually push fabrication off-site and manufacturers to expand their range of prefabricated subassemblies.”

The article’s authors agree. If suppliers and subcontractors use elements and subsystems that can be preassembled in a factory setting, gradually moving significant components like frames or volumetric modules inside as well, off-site construction could contribute to sustainability goals by reducing materials waste, noise, and air dust. It is also easier to implement, maintain and enforce social distancing requirements in the controlled environment of a factory as opposed to a job site.

At a school in California’s Bay Area, replacements were needed for outdated, deteriorating classroom and administration buildings. Tired of being ‘boxed in’ by inflexible, unattractive and temporary portable classrooms, the district wanted healthy, green classrooms to support their new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) focused curriculum. This included larger, connected classrooms with a flexible environment to support movement, active learning and collaboration. The open interior lobby is a suitable venue for small assemblies and additional instructional space.

Extra-wide interior corridors provide flexibility to utilize that space for classroom teaching, enabling a collaborative approach to learning. Movable furniture allows for group activities and the flexibility for break-out spaces, while strategically placed wall niches all contribute to an interactive, collaborative learning environment instead of a typical classroom space. 

Utilizing an off-site production approach offered a price per square foot lower than stick-built options, along with the flexibility to customize, while maintaining a greatly accelerated construction timeline. Disruption was minimized and students and staff were in the new buildings in just a few months, much faster than the general contractor anticipated. 

Building CollaborationIC allows supply chain networks, fabricators, construction managers, and contractors to work concurrently to ensure project data, information, and standards are correctly shared and handed off downstream. Continuous improvement is simplified by tracking a part’s evolution at every phase, with changes reported back to appropriate team members. Increased visibility and predictability allow construction professionals to plan out more projects, scale operations, and have an accurate assessment of the end result.

At the same time, the construction process becomes more efficient and predictable for workers, knowing what to expect, and allowing them to better coordinate and choreograph construction sequences with appropriate spacing between team members.

An interesting comparison can be made with a COVID-19 vaccine. Traditional development and testing typically takes 12-18 months, if not longer for an effective vaccine. But today, regulators are teaming up to find ways to develop a vaccine in record time. Now is the time for our own building regulators to partner with the A/E/C industry to expedite the review and approval process, and embrace an IC approach to building. A joint effort by all stakeholders in rethinking and reimagining the old approaches to designing, engineering, approving, and building will result in faster and better ways to address this immediate need for classrooms that will accommodate our new normal.

Read the article on SchoolConstructionNEWS.

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