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Production thinking in architecture

Prefabrication is said to be the oldest new idea in construction. But it is no wonder that it continues to pervade as an ideal. The construction industry is fraught with litigation, inefficiency and waste. The design and construction of buildings are separate acts that are delineated contractually and legally identified and observed. Arguably, the divide between design and production has resulted in increased schedule delays and cost, and a diminished building quality and sustainability because the conception (architecture), optimization (engineering) and production (construction) are not integrated. In response to this inefficiency, prefabrication and modularization emerge and remerge as ideal methods of efficient production. McGraw-Hill Construction’s latest SmartMarket Report, “Prefabrication and Modularization: Increasing Productivity in the Construction Industry,” demonstrates how prefab architecture is yielding improved project schedules, decreased costs, and reductions in construction waste.

Although the ideology of prefabrication—harnessing the reduction of labor, decreasing schedules, and infusing greater control—is well understood, architects lack the structure for determining where and when fabrication is appropriate. Architects must understand the range of choices, opportunities and challenges associated with prefabrication to use it effectively. Prefabrication requires rethinking design throughout the building process. Specifically, architects must consider production thinking as a value-added measure to design, embracing notions of product theory and product design in the conception phase of development. The following are prefabrication production lessons for the design professional:

1. Decouple manufacture from assembly. Conceptually divide offsite and onsite activities, moving as many non-value-adding onsite operations to offsite control. Prefabrication takes the operations of fitting parts from the job site to the factory floor, especially time-consuming finish and detail work, leaving the assembly to larger subassemblies and fewer connections in the field.

2. Design for interchangeability. One manufacturing efficiency associated with the Industrial Revolution was the realization of the interchangeability of parts for a given product. This allowed random pieces to be selected and assembled to form many outputs. A movement toward more interchangeable parts and an increase in the production rate by favoring direct assembly onsite versus fitting parts on-site increases productivity.

3. Reduction in operations. This lesson has two principles. First, reduce the number of operations in onsite assembly resulting in potential reductions in assembly time, error, risk and cost. Second, reduce the number of parts in a subassembly and the number of subassemblies in an assembly. However, designers and construction professionals rely on conventions, which may be consistent from design to design but are not congruent with developments in manufacturing and production. When a part or subassembly is not functional or does not clearly benefit the integrated whole, it can potentially be integrated into another part or removed altogether.

4. Recognize scales of customization. Building fabrication may be standardized or custom. These terms, however, do not capture the complexity of the manufacturing and fabrication industry. The chief concerns in production thinking are costs, lead times and flexibility surrounding custom products. In general, as customization and flexibility increase, so do cost and lead times for product delivery. Mass customization suggests that digital automation has eclipsed economies of scale; however, this has not been realized in full. Instead, digital fabrication allows for a more predictable (just as useful) cost increase per degree of variation.

The terms made to stock (MTS), assembled to stock (ATS), made to order (MTO), and engineered to order (ETO) are used in manufacturing to define the extent to which a product is customized. This is generally considered proportional to the cost and lead time necessary for production.

5. Modularity. Although a fully integrated mass customization model is not entirely possible under current production methods, a few industrial design models can be transferred to architecture, including the following, illustrated through the example of a building product—exterior cladding:

Component-sharing modularity: same fundamental components with appearance variability within each discrete product (changing cladding options initially from project to project)

Cut-to-fit modularity: varying a product’s length, width or height by cutting it to size based on a fixed module (standardized cladding that can be increased or reduced in size in production)

Mix modularity: variation is achieved by mixing products (cladding in which multiple layers can be added or taken away in fabrication)

Bus modularity: a base structure that supports several attachments (a base frame that numerous cladding materials and systems can be attached to)

Sectional modularity: parts are different but share a common connection method (cladding panels may vary, but the connection to the frame is always the same)

Architectural production is clearly different from other types of production: It is unique every time, it is site specific and it uses a temporary labor force. Prefab architecture works to resolve these peculiarities. For building construction to progress and take advantage of the benefit of factory production, fitting must be expedited, taking construction to the factory and leaving assembly onsite. The maturation and market embrace of building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD) suggest tools and organizational strategies can work concurrently with prefabrication to realize cost-efficient architecture.

Ryan E. Smith is the director of Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, University of Utah, College of Architecture + Planning.


Audrey O’Hagan AIA, BSA president, on our time of challenge and of opportunity

“It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” —Charles Darwin

The BSA community can count strength and intelligence among its features, but 2011 President Audrey O’Hagan AIA highlights another trait sometimes overlooked: responsiveness to change.

Many are familiar with O’Hagan’s warm smile and upbeat presence at BSA events, but we rarely get to chat with her about her vision. O’Hagan shares her thoughts and ambitions below.

During the election process, you spoke of a time of challenge and opportunity. What opportunities do you most hope the BSA can take advantage of today?

The world, as we know, is changing, becoming more open and connected as boundaries are eliminated on many different levels. The profession is undergoing tremendous change. Disciplinary boundaries diminish as we see our profession becoming much more collaborative and integrated. In this regard, this is an opportune time to collectively re-examine our role, forging a new path to ensure continued growth, outreach, visibility and relevance.

Although maintaining the DNA that makes the BSA a leader is important, there are still undiscovered possibilities for progress waiting to be born. I look forward to working with members, the board of directors and all stakeholders to craft a new “masterplan,” reflecting current thinking and anticipating the future. I’d like to use our collective wisdom to better connect to the broader public, engage emerging architects and support practices through new programs, exhibitions and events.

You’ve mentioned openness and inclusivity as strengths of the BSA, ones which are not expressed physically. How do you envision a new space facilitating that?

For starters, the proposed new center for design offers visibility into the heart of the BSA space through large storefront windows, providing opportunities for street-level engagement.

Activities at the ground level—a coffee bar, bookshop and concierge for architectural boat tours and other events—as well as lectures, exhibitions and programs on the second floor, will be designed to promote happenstance, where the public may find themselves drawn in unexpectedly.

The center would enable extended public outreach and member services beyond our current capabilities, and facilitate cross-fertilization and serendipitous moments among those attending various events.

Through an open, flexible design, the BSA’s philosophy of openness and inclusivity will soon be reflected holistically in its physical space.

Beyond being an accomplished architect, it’s rumored you are quite an athlete and played Division 1 basketball and volleyball for Kansas. Any parallels between the two?

Well, I’m not sure about “accomplished.” I am, of course, still learning, growing and seeking knowledge, but it is fun to think about the parallels. I would say one of the key similarities is practice. Passionately working at one’s craft, re-examining often and critically, and seeking ways in which to improve is essential to achieving a level of excellence in any field. It also takes great team members (clients or coaches) to achieve a successful outcome. Architecture is a profession where collaboration is absolutely essential, and each member is an important part of the team, contributing his or her expertise, although each may play different roles.

We know the BSA as a unique and vibrant community; however, many people aren’t aware of all that our members are up to. What elements of the BSA would you most like to bring to a wider audience?

As architects and design-profession affiliates, we know good design makes a positive difference in how people live, work and feel. We are problem solvers. We hope our clients will share that fact after each completed project, and we hope they’ll spread the word.

Although it’s the members, not technically the building, who make our organization special, the building is where ideas are born, minds are expanded and knowledge is shared. It is also catalytic to initiatives such as SHIFTboston, Learning By Design, Common Boston, the Community Development Resource Center of Boston and others. A new center will continue our mission of intellectual exchange and investigation of broader issues facing design, practice and our communities—a place for creating connections.

I would like to see a great window opened up so that the BSA community’s commitment, expertise and dedication to design excellence in sustainable buildings and communities are visible.

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