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Is prefab construction the wave of the future?

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Once relegated to war zones, disaster areas, and remote mines and oilfields in far corners of the globe, prefabricated construction is now all the rage. In 2003 and 2004, I worked in Iraq as a Security Manager for a conglomerate that, among other things, built camps for the U.S. Military. These camps consisted of modular, prefabricated (“prefab”) accommodations, offices, and other facilities to support a host of operations. The process was fairly straightforward yet struck me as incredibly efficient, cost effective, and replicable in other (preferably friendlier) locations around the world:

  • First, we would determine client requirements and conduct a thorough site selection process to determine the ideal location for the camp. Once the site was selected and acquired, we would physically secure it. (You know, improvised rockets, mortars, suicide bombers and all.)

  • Given that the average terrain was flat, sandy and dry, site prep was negligible. The site was staked out for the prefab units, and horizontal infrastructure was installed (read: sewer, water, electric, and most importantly, cable.) Power plants and sewerage treatment plants were built on site.

  • Once the site was prepared and infrastructure installed, the prefab units were driven or flown into the site, positioned in place and connected. That was about it.

What really stood out to me was the seemingly endless flexibility in configurations of the prefab units. Constructed down to the last detail in a climate-controlled warehouse immune to weather delays, some of the most common units were converted 40’ shipping containers. While “mobile home” trailers were suitable for a single-story facility, the shipping containers provided a much more versatile building block. They could be stacked several units high and connected to form larger facilities. They could be outfitted for virtually any use imaginable: housing, offices, dining facilities, bathrooms, communications centers, server rooms, and yes, while generally not found in combat zones, bars. Prefab units have been used for years in war zones and disaster areas, refugee camps, and remote locations where traditional construction methods are impractical or impossible. Today, prefab construction is rapidly gaining in popularity, thanks to rising land and construction costs, and advances in technology. Companies such as Plant Prefab, an Amazon-backed modular housing manufacturer, is developing solutions to meet multifamily demand in inner cities. Their Nest toolkit can deliver multistory multifamily solutions to even the smallest infill lots for a fraction of the cost of traditional construction. In high-cost areas such as Lost Angeles, this can mean up to 90% in cost savings. Fast Company’s Adele Peters wrote a great article about Plant Prefab here.

The hospitality industry has also recognized the benefits of prefab construction. Construction is underway on the world’s tallest prefab modular hotel, AC NoMad Hotel by Marriott. The 100,000SF 26-story hotel’s modular components, including 168 rooms, terraces, and a rooftop bar, are being constructed in Poland. Completion is expected in Spring of 2020.

Need office space? Prefab units have you covered. Take a look at Containerville, a home for start-ups and small businesses, consisting of 45 containers arranged over three floors and up-cycled into modern work spaces next to the Regents Canal in London.

Even retail is taking advantage of the trend. South Florida-based FarmStores utilizes prefab containers for their ultra-convenient drive-through micro-grocery stores, which helps franchisees keep construction costs and timelines down. What once was a regional mom & pop operation now has more than 28 operating franchise locations, with new locations under construction in Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Connecticut.

Given rising development costs and the obvious advantages of this type of construction, is this the wave of the future?

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