Architects look to prefab to create adaptable, human-centered spaces

Norm Doucet, head of Flexible Office Services, Americas at global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, says there’s a shifting dynamic taking place between a trifecta of key players — architects, general contractors (GCs), and commercial real estate (CRE) owners/managers.

The groups have always overlapped in the building industry, but now they’re becoming more invested in facilitating built environments that genuinely meet tenants’ diverse needs.

To achieve this, Doucet says they’re now asking questions such as: “How do I engage more? How do I activate my building in different ways? How do I integrate food and beverage and white glove concierge services into my space so that it becomes a destination?”

As a result, owners and facility leaders are asking architects to consider alternative design and construction approaches to address questions like these.

“In the past, real estate decisions were driven on the EBITDA side of the house,” said Doucet. “It was a cost equation, but now it’s becoming more of a qualitative conversation as well.”

Christina Piper, vice president of workplace design at real estate services provider Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) agrees. “Every company is really focusing on attraction and retention; they’re focusing on diversity and inclusion, and they’re really honing in on what employees want,” she said. “It’s really an employee’s market.”

Increased collaboration among the trifecta can help meet those needs and create beautifully designed, custom interior spaces that are flexible enough to address the diverse demands of inhabitants –– even as they change over time.

Piper said people will thrive in a space that is adaptable and accommodates their specific requirements, and she thinks prefabricated solutions are ideal for enabling customization.

DIRTT Experience Center (DXC) Chicago
DIRTT Experience Center (DXC) Chicago – Photography by James John Jetel

Views around prefabricated interiors are changing

In the past, prefabricated components have not always been an architect’s first choice for interior construction because there’s a misconception that they limit the ability to design beautiful and unique environments.

However, when those who are hesitant interact with the extensive prefabricated options and technical design features that exist today, they realize they have total design freedom to visualize and create a truly custom product.

“We can bring the lead times down, and we can get cost efficiencies,” Piper said when discussing building with prefabricated interior solutions. That is a stark contrast to the misconception that prefab is a stock product with a limited kit of parts. But seeing is believing.

“You need to get designers into a space where they can live and breathe and experience the product …,” she continued,. “[to] actually see a product in person, touch, feel it, in many cases, or sit on it, and really get a sense of how it compares to traditional construction and the differences behind it.”

Dallas DIRTT Experience Center
Dallas DIRTT Experience Center. Photo: James John Jetel

The key to creating adaptable space is collaboration

According to a recent Dodge Data & Analytics report, design firms and contractors agree that prefabrication construction offers significant improvements over conventional construction options. These companies are predicted to increase their use of prefabrication as the benefits are measured more extensively and owners become increasingly more comfortable with the process and outcomes. The report said 80% to 90% of architects and engineers surveyed saw benefits from prefabricated construction in several important categories: improved quality, schedule certainty, better cost predictability, higher productivity, less waste, and increased client satisfaction.

Beyond those practical benefits, prefabrication is critical to creating adaptable space because components can be swapped out in the future rather than ripping down walls and having to start from scratch when change is needed.

“Prefab is important for flexibility going forward,” Piper said, noting that designers working in healthcare and education have been more likely to use prefabricated interior construction than those designing in commercial real estate.

“With workplaces and corporate interiors, that hasn’t really been the modus operandi,” she says. “The ability to have something built off-site and assembled quickly on-site — that’s a fairly foreign concept to workplace designers.”

Considering the value of collaboration among the trifecta of architects, GCs, and CRE owners, Piper believes that GCs are often ideal ambassadors for prefabricated interior construction, educating those in CRE who are now starting to embrace solutions outside of conventional construction.

Piper said when designers find a partner who understands prefab, they can rely on them for day-to-day design inspiration. “It starts with a really qualified partner that they trust, and then they can realize their vision.”

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