Construction is one of the most innovative and adaptable industries.

by Drew Bloss, Project Manager

Innovation and technological advances within the construction industry are changing the way in which we work on a daily basis, and are helping us as construction professionals to produce stellar projects in an unprecedently efficient manner. I’m currently working on the North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) project at Cornell University and out of all of the projects I have worked on throughout the past 8 years, this project leverages the industry’s latest advancements and innovations more so than any other I’ve experienced in my career. Prefabrication and LEAN Construction techniques are two areas specifically that this project excels at, so I feel it would be interesting to share a few high-level examples of each.

Prefabricated Materials

At the conclusion of the NCRE project, there will be just over 2,000 new beds available to Cornell freshman and sophomores across 5 separate buildings. With this many occupants comes the need for a whole lot of bathrooms. From framing and rough-ins to the finishes and fixtures, constructing stick-built bathrooms is typically a very time-consuming process as nearly every trade has to contribute in some way, shape, or form.

At NCRE, we have streamlined this process by having the bathrooms premanufactured off-site and delivered when they are needed. Premanufactured bathrooms will be installed in most suites and individual residences throughout the buildings, totaling to a count of 432. We refer to these bathrooms as PODs, as they look like a framed box from the outside, but on the inside, they are fully finished bathrooms.

A few of my colleagues and I took a trip out to Ohio where these PODs are being manufactured to review the process. The production is set up in an assembly line fashion and at any given time, there are approximately 50 PODs on the line in various stages of assembly and finishing. It takes roughly 26 days for a single POD to make its way from the start of production to punch list completion, and every day 2 PODs come off of the line and two new PODs are added. This results in a production rate of 10 finished PODs a week, a timeline that would be tough to match with traditional on-site construction methods. On average, we set anywhere between 4 to 6 bathroom PODs in a single day and once a POD is set, there is minimal work that needs to be done until the PODs are framed in with the rest of the floors. By assembling bathrooms off-site, their production can be independent of the tasks that are occurring on-site, and visa-versa. This saves a substantial amount of time, and frees up manpower to focus their efforts elsewhere.

Prefabrication has also been utilized for the buildings’ exterior envelopes. Exterior wall systems can vary greatly in how they are constructed and the time it takes to bring them together, so manufacturing all of the necessary structural components and control layers of exterior walls off-site in controlled environments is an obvious time saver and allows for more aggressive scheduling. The majority of the buildings on this project have envelopes that are made up of pre-cast concrete wall panels. Across all of the buildings, there is a total of 1,570 wall panels, accounting for approximately 220,000 SF of building frontage. Each wall panel is comprised of an interior wythe of concrete, polyiso foil-faced insulation, an exterior wythe of concrete, and individual terracotta tiles that make up the architectural face of the panels. All of these components are cast together in two phases to create a unitized exterior wall panel. When they arrive at the job site, they are set one at a time by a crane and locked into place, immediately forming an insulated exterior wall. From there, panels need to be caulked from both the in and outside, and windows are installed in their designated openings. At a rate of roughly 8 wall panels a day, this process quickly encloses the buildings, which is a critical milestone for all downstream tasks within the building.

LEAN Construction

An essential aspect of managing construction projects is to always know where the project is in relation to the master schedule. It’s extremely hard for a project to be successful if milestones are not closely tracked and tasks not scheduled on a weekly basis. At the time that I am writing this, we have nearly 300 people on-site every day, working in all 5 buildings. The buildings are all in various stages of construction, anywhere from foundations and steel erection to taping and painting, and everywhere in between. It was essential that a process be put in place early on in the project that would enable Welliver as the CM, as well as all of trade partners and the client to understand what stage of the project we were in at any given time, and what tasks would be coming up in the near future. It was also important to be able to break down a 3-year long project into more manageable and less overwhelming chunks.

Ultimately the decision was made to utilize a LEAN Construction technique known as Pull Planning. As part of the Pull Planning process, we meet 3 days a week with the foremen, superintendents, and project managers of all trade partners to collaborate and develop a sequence of tasks that ensure that the project as a whole is staying on schedule. The purview of a Pull Planning meeting is typically 3 weeks ahead, although we often plan for certain milestones that are several weeks to months out. With this approach, everyone is made aware of what each trade’s tasks are and what they need in order to get it done. It is also extremely helpful in identifying potential issues well in advance since there are so many different perspectives that are involved in the planning process. We are nearly a year into the project at this point in time and so far, this process has been extremely successful. It creates a sense of teamwork between contractors and the CM, which breeds an overall culture of focus, accountability, and comradery.

Prefabrication and LEAN Construction techniques are only a few of the many examples of how the NCRE project is taking advantage of the latest innovations and technologies that the construction industry has to offer. It’s important to note though that although these things help to make the construction process more efficient and effective, it takes an extremely dedicated and organized team of people to make it all work. Between my colleagues on the CM team and the trade partners putting the work in place, the NCRE project has a truly impressive group of individuals that put their best foot forward on a daily basis to ensure that this monumental project is a success. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it.

Drew has been applying advanced construction technology to projects for nearly a decade. He recognizes that every project has its own set of unique variables such as the weather, availability of materials, cooperation from project members, changes in scope, and constructability issues. One of the most challenging aspects of being a project manager is identifying and handling those variables while maintaining the project budget and schedule. Leveraging significant experience working with construction technology and innovative methods, Drew applies this knowledge to make the construction process more efficient.