The productization revolution in construction

Amy Marks, Autodesk’s Head of Industrialized Construction Strategy and Evangelism, has a red high-heel shoe on display in her home office to make a point about the benefits of productization. It was custom-made, which Marks argues isn’t very efficient. Why buy a custom pair of heels when you can easily buy them off the shelf quicker and probably pay less?

The story illustrates a point Marks has been making for years as the world’s pre-eminent prefabrication consultant, who also goes by the nickname “Queen Of Prefab.” Marks believes — and has a growing number of supporters who agree — that the building industry would be more efficient and sustainable if it embraced productization through prefabrication and design for manufacture and assembly.

“The environment has changed, the technology has changed, the labor force has changed,” she says. “You can’t do the same thing you’ve been doing and expect to get better results. That’s just crazy.”

“It’s not hard to prefabricate. It’s hard to create a culture, a process, and a leadership that enable it.”

– Amy Marks

Marks’ perspective comes from a long history in the building industry: Her parents ran a successful general contracting construction management firm in Long Island, New York. After a stint in the family business, Marks executed a $40-million turnaround of a modular construction company. She then ran her own consulting firm, XSite Modular, for nearly a decade, helping to optimize prefabrication across many building types in industries ranging from healthcare to high-tech.

Her latest gig is head of industrialized construction strategy and evangelism at tech company Autodesk. It’s a cool title and another powerful platform for Marks to “open source” her prefabrication passion. She spends her days spreading the word about the need for the industry to transform through the convergence of design, construction, manufacturing, and operations, driven by technology.

“The lines are completely blurring,” Marks says. “Traditional players in the architecture, engineering, and construction space are not staying in their lanes and breaking down the silos of existing business models. Owners get more involved in leading design and build, general contractors are fabricating, subcontractors are engaging directly with owners — we’re seeing convergence across the ecosystem.”

The Rise of Prefab

McKinsey & Co. research shows that permanent modular construction market share of new North American real estate construction projects grew by 50% between 2015 to 2018. Research and development spending among the top 2,500 construction companies globally has risen by approximately 77% since 2013. What’s more, about two-thirds of companies surveyed by McKinsey believe that COVID-19 will lead to an acceleration of the transformation, and half have already raised investment for that purpose. Research the company did in 2019 shows that projects using prefabrication can accelerate timelines by as much as 50%, and real estate companies who make the shift and optimize for scale can see more than 20% in cost savings.

Looking ahead, a 2020 report from Dodge Data & Analytics forecasts increased use of prefabrication and permanent modular construction over the next three years. In addition, 75% of trade contractors and two thirds of general contractors and construction managers report having experience working with multi-trade assemblies over the last three years.

“It’s not hard to prefabricate. It’s hard to create a culture, a process, and a leadership that enable it,” Marks says. “You’re talking about a space where people mostly came out of working with their hands in the trades without integrating technology or digitizing. It takes a long time to change the DNA of the industry and the culture, especially one that has been insular and disconnected from other industries that have progressed.”

Companies that don’t make the shift could eventually become like the Blockbuster videos of the construction business, Marks warns, amid intensifying competition and cost pressures. The fallout from COVID-19, which has many companies questioning the way they work and their integration of technology, is expected to challenge the industry even more in the years ahead.

Prefab for Sustainability

Prefabrication is not only more efficient, but also more sustainable, according to Marks, and in more ways than one.

For starters, there’s environmental sustainability. “We have the opportunity to do a lot of reuse in our space, and designing for life cycles of buildings in a different way where we can really take advantage of things like decoupling the technology for the circular economy and for reuse,” she says referring to what she calls Design for Manufacturing and Assembly – and Disassembly and Reuse (DfMA-DR) .

There’s also an industry sustainability angle around attracting the next generation of skilled workers to drive innovation and creativity: “We’ve got to attract new, diverse talent and diversity of thought to this ecosystem, and this does it,” Marks says of the prefabrication trends powered by data and technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“People want to work with robotics and automation, and they want to work with things that are digitized.”

– Amy Marks

“They want to understand technology and software and fabrication,” Marks says. “It’s just interesting. You’re going to bring in a fresh set of people if you can move towards designing and building like this.”

And there’s the broader economic sustainability that keeps the industry profitable which, in turn, gives it the financial capacity to invest in its future: “We need economic sustainability to enable companies to stay alive and keep creating and designing buildings based on more complexity,” she says.

For Marks, the surefire way to make her industry more sustainable is to promote participation, innovation and advancement across all segments. It’s what inspires her to put that prefab crown on top of her hardhat every day.

“This is a revolution,” Marks says. “We have to think creative destruction — burn down some silos and enable new skills and growth in order to achieve the new possible.”

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