From magical theme parks to healthcare facilities, architects push for prefab and a more integrated design approach

Towers, turrets, and spires are the first thing that catch your eye from afar. 

As you make your way closer to the castle, you notice that each tower is in fact a different design — uniquely built to reflect the enchanting stories of 13 princesses and queens from around the world. 

When exploring inside the castle walls, you discover it’s not just an amazing physical structure, but a place that was intentionally designed to create magical experiences.

The castle is, after all, designed and built by Walt Disney Imagineering.

Color, icons, symbols, patterns, sounds and special effects that appeal to the senses are different in every section of the Castle of Magical Dreams in Hong Kong — each reflecting the story and cultural background of a specific character. 

It’s a cinematic approach to storytelling through the power of architectural design and engineering, says Hilcia Pena, Senior Project Architect at Walt Disney Imagineering. 

And it all came together thanks to prefabricated construction.

Castle of Magical Dreams
The Castle of Magical Dreams at Hong Kong Disneyland. - Image copyright Disney. Used with permission.

Don’t discount the advantages of prefab on large expansion projects

“A lot of times in the industry, we think of prefabrication as simple boxes. Because this is a castle, and every piece is so unique, a lot of people don’t even quite dare to think that it could be prefabricated,” says Pena. 

This ambitious project — the first time Disney has ever expanded a castle at a theme park that remained fully open — was entirely prefabricated. 

“The fact that it was right smack in the middle of an operating theme park really helped to spur the idea that we can’t just have all this scaffolding up,” explains Pena. “We needed to reduce the amount of time it was going to take to build this thing.”

All the towers and other units were made and painted off-site, while the foundation of the building was simultaneously being constructed. The Imagineering team determined that prefabricated construction would equate to 35% time savings with the project delivery schedule.

Once the prefab models arrived on site they were assembled and installed at night, meaning Disney was able to avoid closing the park and guests were not disrupted by construction — the business was fully functioning through the build.

While Disney has been using prefab since they built the Contemporary Resort which opened with the Magic Kingdom park in 1971, it had never completed such a large and complex, fully prefabricated project before. 

This highly successful, expanded use of prefabrication at the Castle of Magical Dreams in Hong Kong demanded a more integrated approach to design, says Louise Pang, Director, Environmental Design & Engineering at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Castle of Magical Dreams
The Castle of Magical Dreams at Hong Kong Disneyland. - Image copyright Disney. Used with permission.

Cross-functional collaboration is the key to more integrated design 

In the last 20 years, Pang says both design and regulatory standards have become far more complicated, requiring greater cross-industry collaboration than before. 

“We’re trying to make every attraction more special, with more entertainment,” she says. “And that just adds to the complexity. We have to bring in more stakeholders and designers and specialists, who must come to work together to build an integrated design.”

Within that process, she and Pena enable collaboration and help stakeholders visualize how the end product of a prefabricated building design will look and feel using building information modeling and virtual reality. 

“To be able to visualize something in a more realistic virtual sense, really creates a holistic vision that everybody can buy into,” says Pena. 

Visualization is important, but even more critical is getting everyone on the same page.

“A 3D building Information model allows us to all work in that virtual space together and define what we require, and share that with other stakeholders, team members, leaders, creatives, and groups that are part of the design and construction process,” she says.

Dallas DIRTT Experience Center
Image: James John Jetel. Project: Dallas DIRTT Experience Center

Moving from a top-down management mentality to a ‘Team of Teams’ approach

Collaboration and building toward a common goal is important outside of theme parks too, of course. 

“I think looking for better ways to organize teams, deliver projects, and ultimately deliver services is what got me to prefab,” says Stan Chiu, director of healthcare at global design and architecture firm, Gensler.

Chiu says his team has come to use prefabrication as a solution organically on many projects where the goal was faster, cheaper, and better quality.

But with the rising use of prefabrication, Chiu believes a team-based collaboration model among those who design and build space is critical to success, as some architects are hesitant to share the process with people who are not architects.

With this legacy approach, challenges emerge because architects and decision-makers at the top can’t know everything that’s required for the success of a project that has multiple moving parts, nor can they identify and enable efficiencies and savings at a granular level.

“In these bigger, more complicated projects, that’s just not realistic,” Chiu says. “As prefabricated elements become multi-trade, the complexity goes up, but the ability to save time and money goes up too. So it’s kind of higher risk, higher reward. And that for me, multi-trade prefab is just straight up ‘Team of Teams’.”

Chiu is referencing a term from a book by retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal called “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”. The book suggests that traditional hierarchical management approaches don’t work because organizations are too big for any one person to make all the decisions. 

Instead, McChrystal presents arguments to create a ‘shared consciousness’ where information is openly shared, intentions are well understood, and everyone has a clear picture of what the goals are — so details are not lost to a black hole of keeping people informed only on a need-to-know-basis.

Dallas DIRTT Experience Center
Image: James John Jetel. Project: Dallas DIRTT Experience Center

The ‘aha moment’ of an integrated approach

Chiu says he really saw the benefits of cross-team collaboration when he worked on a $6-billion, multi-stakeholder healthcare project in California that came with tight deadlines. He, along with 150 others working on the project, used a more integrated approach to understand the needs of the space that was being built. 

The “aha” moment for Chiu was when no one was technically required to approve the design direction, because everyone was embedded within the design team at that point and everyone contributed to the decisions and outcome.

“We had a client embedded within those teams, we had operators, and the architects, engineers, contractors, trade partners, and everybody had set the direction.” 

They knew they had come up with the best layouts and would meet their budget and schedule deadlines, because they had designed it together. 

“The people who know the best way to do things and the people who are closest to the work,” Chiu says. “And that’s the power of a cross-functional team.”

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