Roy Griffith: Prefabrication for High-Quality Student Housing Delivered Faster and on Budget

by Katie Sloan

As universities expand to accommodate growing student populations, traditional design and construction processes make it challenging to complete projects on time, safely and within budget. Industry benchmarks show that 61 percent of typical projects are behind schedule and 49 percent are over budget, according to a report by the Lean Construction Institute[1]. The pain of labor shortages, cost and budget overruns, and construction waste has driven many colleges and universities to look for alternative ways to more efficiently renovate or expand.

Roy Griffith, Clark Pacific

Universities are looking at prefabrication as a strategic approach to projects across their portfolios. Prefabricated building systems provide early cost certainty and often, the initial cost is the final cost for the prefabricated portion of a project. Prefabrication also increases safety, minimizes campus disruption and delivers a project between 30-50 percent faster than traditional methods because construction of the building occurs simultaneously with the site and foundation work.

Forward-thinking institutions, like Stanford University in Stanford, California, have turned to prefabrication as an alternative to traditional construction. Rather than looking at prefabrication on a project-by-project basis, Stanford is leveraging prefabrication strategically over multiple projects.

In 2014, the university explored prefabrication with Kennedy Hall, a four-building, 400-bed graduate residence. Under pressure to meet the growing demand for graduate housing, Stanford selected an initial prefabricated housing system that integrated the entire building structure and façade system. This panelized prefabricated building system was factory-fabricated and delivered to the active campus for assembly. As a result, the project was completed in one school year, shaving two academic quarters off the schedule and removing an estimated 6,500 man days from the site. Strategically, the university and entire project team came to understand the value of panelized prefabricated systems and the potential for using them in future projects.

“We had four buildings up in three months,” says John Wong, project manager. “With traditional construction, that would have taken the better part of six to nine months.”

Having previously experienced the advantages of prefabrication with Kennedy Hall, Stanford University once again turned to prefabrication in 2017. With the high cost of rent in neighboring communities and desire to attract the best students from around the world, Stanford decided to replace several of its low-rise wood frame apartments with high quality high-rise buildings. The project, the Escondido Village Graduate Residences, is a collection of four residence halls ranging from six to ten stories and providing a total of 2,400 beds. The project leverages even more prefabrication that its predecessor.

Like many on-campus student housing projects, construction for the Escondido Village will take place on an active student campus. There is less parking, noise and traffic considerations, and fewer delivery locations. From past experience, the university knew that prefabrication would reduce construction on-site and minimize negative impacts to campus life.

Leveraging the success of Kennedy, the Escondido Village project utilized the panelized prefabrication system and took the offsite work a step further by factory-installing the windows and other exterior elements. The complete system is estimated to remove 65,000 man days from the Escondido Village job site. The internal structure, exterior cladding and windows for all four buildings will be installed in just 11 months, six months faster than with traditional construction.

Slow Adoption

It sounds too good to be true — high quality student housing delivered on budget and ahead of schedule, with less campus disruption. Yet, the reality is that prefabrication is delivering these benefits today. So why aren’t more colleges and universities turning to prefabrication for student housing?

According to a recent study[2], the biggest challenges in the adoption of prefabrication and off-site construction are a lack of knowledge and experience, fear of taking new risks and reluctance to change. Although understandable, many of these mindsets are based on misconceptions about prefabrication.

Let’s explore a few:

Misconception:  Prefabricated systems limit design and are one dimensional, plain or can’t be aesthetically pleasing or customized.

Reality: Prefabricated systems have come a long way and offer high-quality finishes, aesthetic versatility and most importantly, design flexibility. By working with a prefabricator that has great deal of experience collaborating with design teams and making their visions a reality, you can get more aesthetics out of a prefabricated system.

Misconception: Low quality puts projects at risk because buildings constructed with prefabricated systems are not created with the same level of quality as traditional buildings.

Reality: One of the main benefits of off-site construction is the ability to produce higher quality work under controlled conditions.

Misconception: Because prefabricated systems require that components are transported to the job site, using them is more expensive.

Reality: While there are transportation costs, prefabrication results in shortened construction time, predictable timelines, lower labor costs and more efficient jobsites – all of which offset the cost of transportation and can significantly reduce costs over traditional construction methods.

It’s never too late to discover the benefits of prefabricated building systems and, like Stanford University, escape the cost and schedule risks associated with traditional construction methods by exploring a different way of bringing student housing projects to life. Rather than looking at prefabrication project-by-project, the university’s strategic and multi-project approach to prefabrication enabled Stanford to successfully explore and increase the advantages of prefabrication.

— Roy Griffith is the director of corporate development at Clark Pacific, a leader in the design, manufacturing and construction of pre-fabricated building systems. Driven by innovation and a unique approach, Clark Pacific bridges the gap between construction and manufacturing to deliver high quality, cost effective buildings on budget and on time. 

 [1]Lean Construction Institute, Lean Projects are Three Times More Likely to Complete Ahead of Schedule According to Dodge Data & Analytics’ Research, 2016

 [2]FMI, New Day, New Mindset Rethinking Offsite Construction 2018 FMI/CURT/CII Owner Survey

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