Rooftop Ruminations

The Silver Lining of Prefabrication

I am standing today on the roof of 77 Hudson Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, a condominium tower under construction, located in downtown Jersey City.  As I gaze over to mid-town Manhattan on a crystal clear day this past week, I am reminded of the concept that silver linings to bleak economic clouds always exist, for those who chose to see them.  In this case I am speaking about the concept of prefabrication in construction.  For this project, the blessing of innovation centers on the prefabricated window wall exterior, as it gleams in the sun drenched sky, even if it is 28 degrees outside.


In amongst all of the noise with regard to the current energy fads that surround us (if I hear the word ‘green’ again in conjunction with anything not related to grass I am going to have  a melt down!), a quiet revolution in construction is occurring, prefabrication.  Construction prefabrication, with its controlled factory techniques, is the answer to more and more problems within the real estate and construction community, as it grapples with building related failure issues, from collapses to water infiltration to mold and other nefarious issues.  The overall quality of construction from the mid-1980’s to today have been lacking and material standards have been reduced to a razor’s edge.  Turning to prefabrication as the solution for a variety of building assemblies has not only lessened costs, but actually increased the performance standards for products from structural framing to windows to roofs to cabinetry to entire homes.


For 77 Hudson Street, the prefabrication savior is a product referred to as “SOTA Wall” by SOTA Glazing, Inc.  SOTA Wall is an engineered curtain wall system prefabricated off-site and delivered to the site, lifted and snapped into place in modular segments along an exterior elevation.  Simple enough, but until recently, unheard of.  The traditional methods require an aluminum window frame to be set in place, then glass and gaskets fitted to the system in the field.  It is the fitting process that is the cause of headaches at the time of the installation and then five years later when those same connections leak due to excessive exposure, allowing moisture into the building with all of its by products to ensue. A factory approach removes the elements and the human error issues with quality control techniques at the time of fabrication.


I am not specifically endorsing this construction product, so much as pointing to a trend in the construction industry that is slowly making inroads into the problems associated with building performance over time and the poor aging performance of buildings across the United States.  Building owners assume that the remaining useful life of their acquisition is anywhere from 35 to 50 years.  They are then dismayed when newer construction fails to perform after 10 to 15 years of use.  Prefabrication techniques are slowly becoming the answer.  With a higher first cost, prefabrication is making more sense when factoring in the later cost of repair and litigation that surrounds field assembly techniques.  In other words, pay now and crow about the performance, rather than pay later and lament the court costs. (By the way, did that full façade repair really stop all of the leaking?)


SOTA Wall is not the only prefabrication success story out there.   If you take a look at most parking garages built today, the trend is toward pre-cast concrete assemblies fabricated and delivered to the site and craned into place.  The assembly speed rivals any construction fast track system, with a performance record that is fast out pacing any of the cast-in-place or steel frame varieties.


Prefabricated framing techniques for wood assemblies are another major technique becoming standardized in the commercial residential field.  Other prefabrication stories include a long list of residential assemblies.  Just look more closely to some of the offerings at the local Home Depot or Lowes and you will see doors with frames pre-attached or the myriad of cabinetry selections with integrated tops, backsplashes, etc.  


After the preverbal dust has settled on the millennium economic melt down and the global warming crowd has melted into the mainstream, prefabrication will be the survivor and for those discerning, the savior for creative value.


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