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Building it fast: should procurement teams opt for faster construction methods?

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by Sakthi Prasad
27 July 2015


Building it fast: should procurement teams opt for faster construction methods?

In collaboration with Dr. Saty Satyamurti, A Construction Expert based in Arlington, Texas & Raj Manohar, Lead Analyst, Engineering & Construction, Beroe Inc.

Recently, the world of construction was a bit stunned when news began to spread that a Chinese construction company had built a 57-storey building in just 19 days.

About 95% of the building parts were fabricated at the factory and more than 1000 workers assembled various building parts at the construction site, which is located in Changsha, capital of Southern China's Hunan Province, according to Broad Group that built the skyscraper  (https://beroeinc.co/1LSkCnM).

For now, only Broad Group has the knowhow of putting up a building in such short span of time and we will have to wait and watch if this model is replicated by other building contractors around the world.

However, in case this technique gains widespread currency, can category managers responsible for procuring engineering and construction services consider such a fast-paced option? Can they opt for this method if they want to build breweries, factories, foundries, power plants, various types of mills and other structures?

Yes, they can but they may be faced with several constraints, according to construction expert Dr. Saty Satyamurti of Arlington, Texas: 

  • Offsite fabrication facilities and quality control systems need to be put in place by the contractor that satisfies the KPIs set by the procurement teams.
  • Procurement managers need to consider the mode of transportation, especially if the construction site is located on crowded roads, alleys and streets.
  • Category managers need to ensure that there is enough space or room for lay-down area for building structural frames and materials before they are hoisted onto the construction blocks.
  • High capacity heavy lift cranes are a must, which are similar to hauling shipping containers in Ports and harbors and this can add to overall construction costs.
  • The availability of experienced and skilled labor to coordinate and erect buildings in short duration.

The modular construction technique was first used by Disney World, in Orlando, Florida in the 1970s when they built the hotels inside Disney World. It was nick named as the "match box" or the "chest of drawer" method. 

Under this method, the shell was constructed first consisting of columns and slabs for four or five storey high and then the rooms were assembled on site with all necessary furnishings. Once the assembly was finished, they were then lifted and inserted like "the box containing the matches" into the shell.

But this method was expensive, and only Disney could then afford to spend that kind of money, according to Dr. Satyamurti.

However, despite slow adoption, modular construction method that saves time as well as cost is being used in some form or other in selective sectors across the world. For example, offshore production facilities that are 3 or 4 floors high are built using "single point lift" construction method that are similar to the Chinese building, according to Dr. Satyamurti.

Recently, bridges in the U.S. are being built using the Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) method developed in Florida International University in collaboration with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  (https://beroeinc.co/1Kv3zrk)

Accelerated Bridge Construction involves offsite fabrication of major components of the bridge and erects them at the construction site using minimum labor and materials.

Despite being a speedier option, modular construction techniques are still prone to unexpected delays, which can potentially increase the overall construction costs. On July 28, the Wall Street Journal reported that two U.S. sites where nuclear reactors are being built based on modular construction techniques have been hit with costly delays. The newspaper reported that plant's delay will increase the project's financing costs, potentially adding $778 million to the original cost base. (https://beroeinc.co/1MsQEFG)

Though there are many regional firms who have the capability in terms of technology and finances to undertake challenging projects like the 57 storey building, the risk that needs to be borne by the architect, engineer and construction contractor as well as the buyer are quite high. Factors such as possibility of accidents during transport, loading and lifting of pre-fabricated modules, structural consistency of modules as well as efficient co-ordination between various stakeholders involved is a necessity for successful execution of such out-of-the-box projects. Application of technologies and construction methods adopted by Broad Group for completion of a major high rise structure is a major prime mover for design and construction innovation that has been successfully put to use on real world applications. Realization of the benefits of such innovative methods is still restricted to specific construction requirements, availability of large sites, and the emulation of these techniques for multiple end-user sectors is still far away, but achievable!

Many new airports are planned to be built and existing ones renovated to accommodate the increased tourist and domestic passenger traffic. Modularization of several internal components of the terminal building could be an area where innovative designs and construction methods could be used to speed up the opening of new airports. The facade of airports can be different, but internal arrangement will be identical that will result in savings of large sum of money. Designers and builders of new apartment buildings, hotels and hospitals should be encouraged to try this novel technique to save time and money, at the same time bringing facilities to the use of the public in short construction duration.

Long story short: as the world marvels at the Chinese building, the modular construction technique continues to find little adoption. And procurement managers can have a wide choice of suppliers only when more and more construction companies begin to adopt this technique.


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