Industry Transformation

Sarah Hicks

As we look to the future, it’s clear the next big step toward sustainable development involves the increased use of mass timber and a greater degree of off-site prefabrication. Factory-built solutions are the key to the significant gains in construction efficiency and building performance that we need to improve our built environment and reduce its carbon footprint.

In off-site construction, building components are prefabricated in a controlled indoor setting. This process reduces risk and significantly increases efficiency, quality, and building performance. 

Depending on the size and complexity of the manufactured components, off-site prefabrication can considerably reduce a construction schedule and can generate significant cost savings over a strictly site-built project. Off-site construction provides many other benefits, including enhanced sustainability, predictable timelines, controlled expenses, reduced construction noise and other neighbourhood disruptions, more efficient use of material and labour resources, and improved worker health and safety.

Potential Opportunities for Cabinet Makers and Millworkers 

In construction, the term ‘prefab’ can apply to many different levels of completion. At one end of the spectrum, it can be as simple as incorporating structural insulated panels into a primarily site-built project to speed up the process of enclosing the building. Several steps up from that is an entirely panelized building like those produced by Ontario’s newest CLT manufacturer, Element5.

A modular, prefabricated mass timber building from Element 5 is flat-packed and shipped to the site with window, door, and MEP openings pre-cut. Many connections are preinstalled for quick assembly and finishing. At the other end of the prefab spectrum are complete volumetric units shipped with all building elements (windows, doors, kitchens, bathrooms, etc.) already installed so that construction on site consists of simply stacking and joining the finished modules together to complete the building. Ideally, only bolting and interconnection of the building services are required at the site.

As the construction industry shifts towards a greater degree of off-site manufacturing, there is a growing potential for cabinet makers and millworkers to tie into off-site prefabrication. Not only by working with volumetric constructors requiring cabinetry and millwork for completed units, but also with panelizers looking to expand their scope by being able to include modular kitchen and bathroom pods that can be inserted into assembled structures.   

Expand Scope to Increase Competitiveness

As the off-site industry expands and evolves, disrupting the current industry will create new opportunities for traditional suppliers. In the 4-storey, 40-unit modular apartment building shown here, the flat-packed CLT structure can be assembled in approximately 20 days, a rate of about one floor per week. Although the structure will be built and enclosed quite quickly, the overall speed of the total build could have been improved even further if the finished kitchen and bathroom pods could have been dropped into the units as each floor goes up. 

There is a growing need for suppliers of kitchen and bathroom modules that can be shipped as independent units and craned into place, seamlessly integrating with flat-packed solutions. If there had been a supplier capable of providing kitchen and bathroom pods to this project, it would have gone that route. Already there is a potential to supply hundreds of units per year. 

The construction industry is going to continue to progress in this direction. Future builds will endeavour to do as much off-site work as possible, and that will include volumetric kitchen and bathroom units to complement the speed of the modular and panelized construction methods already in use today. Eventually, it will become a matter of competitiveness, and producers who can pivot to offer volumetric kitchen and bathroom solutions will have a competitive advantage over other suppliers due to speed.

Sarah Hicks is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Element5 based in Toronto, Ontario. Previously, Sarah was a Spokesperson at the Canadian Wood Council. With more than 15 years in the industry, Sarah brings excellent insight into the growing role of mass timber in Canada.

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