The Rise of the MEP Subcontractor: 4 Steps to Embrace the Industrialized Construction Revolution
Written By Amy Marks
Amy Marks eVolve MEP software

Amy Marks is Head of Industrialized Construction, Strategy and Evangelism at Autodesk. Previously, she was the CEO of XSite Modular, the world’s first prefabrication consulting firm, where she advised large end users, construction companies, subcontractors and governments like Singapore on integration and optimization of prefabrication.

Industrialized Construction (IC) – the application of manufacturing techniques to the built environment – continues to be one of the most promising developments for the future of the design and construction ecosystem. IC is an umbrella term that includes a continuum of prefabrication methods such as advanced building products, single & multi trade assemblies and volumetric modular solutions. It’s supported by Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA): a design methodology to enable and optimize prefabrication using a set of design choices and principles.

When implemented correctly, IC enables the industry to be predictable, safe and sustainable. And while the entire construction ecosystem might be in different states of “prefab readiness,” it’s MEP Subcontractors that have been leading the way – the unsung heroes of prefabrication. 

Why industrialized construction, and why now?

Industrialized construction and prefabrication are not new to the industry, but we are seeing increasing pressure driving greater adoption. Both McKinsey and the UK’s Construction Innovation Hub are predicting shifts of up to 30% towards prefabrication from the traditional contracting value pool. We are also seeing external pressures of “serial” owners and governments, such as the UK and Singapore, demanding prefabrication – along with other global proof points of prefabrication and successful product manufacturers that are lowering the barriers to adoption. And, most significantly, we are seeing subcontractors recognizing value and driving the agenda, particularly MEP specialty contractors.

MEP: The pioneers of subcontractor prefabrication

While we’re seeing a global shift towards embracing, implementing and investment in these processes, it’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) subcontractors who have been making the first ascent in scaling their prefabrication approaches faster and more widely than others. They are currently adopting a model similar to that of a manufacturing business – focusing on historical project data and information, fine tuning processes over time and applying these processes across a portfolio of projects. As a result, they are proving that when executed properly, a controlled built environment such as prefabrication improves productivity, overcomes labor shortages and increases predictability of cost and schedule.

Making industrialized construction a universal reality

As MEP subcontractors lead the way with DfMA and prefabrication adoption, there are several concepts and approaches they should keep in mind to embrace the full potential of industrialized construction – and accelerate the growth of this quiet revolution. Here are four suggestions that may be the most impactful for adoption:

1) Make the shift to a product-led mindset

The “project-based” mindset has become the single biggest blocker of successful implementation of industrialized construction principles. The “one-off” mentality makes optimization almost impossible and also makes it difficult to collect meaningful data – effectively blindfolding us from the powerful insight into certainty and predictability that only good data can provide.

Subcontractors need to shift towards a “product-led” mindset and approach by creating a standard protocol and set of products that can be utilized across many, or all, projects. Standard protocol and products allows subcontractors to create and implement tried-and-true approaches to prefabrication to increase predictability and safety across every project, while also lowering production and implementation costs.

2) Focus on education within the ecosystem

As we shift to this “product-led” mindset, it’s important to truly understand what this term means. For example, success will require subcontractors educating others on their element specific DfMA principles – a particular set of instructions that include proprietary rules of each manufacturer and outline design choices that need to be made. I plan to speak more about this in my upcoming keynote at MEP Force on August 31st, but this education is a crucial indicator of success.

3) Without collaboration, we fail

Collaborating early and often helps clients, designers, general contractors and subcontractors avoid common pitfalls of miscommunication and uninformed decision making. Utilizing connected digital platforms and building information modeling that allow transparent sharing of data, from design all the way through operations, helps subcontractors communicate and collaborate on information along the way. With so many key inputs required during the industrialized construction process, success hinges on streamlined communication and collaboration. Without it, we will undoubtedly fail. 

4) Optimize for ongoing improvement

Early adopters of prefabrication consistently highlight the importance of optimization. Once a product is defined, subcontractors should engage in a continual process of improvement and draw on data for analysis. This analysis enables future certainty of cost, schedules and quality using these prefabricated elements. It’s important to remember that industrialized construction isn’t just moving to a controlled off-site environment; it’s about applying manufacturing techniques in a repeatable fashion.

The future of industrialized construction

As we see more and more success with industrialized construction, led by example from the MEP subcontractor segment, subcontractors of every trade need to consider adopting prefabrication by leveraging their understanding of the industry and trusted relationships to drive forward the future of industrialized construction.

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