Refabricating Architecture, a book published by Kieran and Timberlake in 2004, proposes a transformation in the design and assembly process of building. The authors propose off-site fabrication of buildings as a more efficient method versus traditional on-site building. They suggest that this new strategy can considerably decrease building time and costs while increasing quality, precision, and workers safety. The architecture industry today has passively accepted the universal law of economy and value where quality x scope = cost x time, while other industries have gladly refused to do so.
Cars, Ships and Planes
Industries such as automobile, aircraft and ship building have already adapted to the advantages of the prefabricated production method. The Boeing 777 program has now over 40 major suppliers in more than a dozen countries. The suppliers produce modules for the aircraft in a plant located elsewhere and ship the segments to be assembled on site at the final stage of production. By changing their design method to off-site modular prefabrication, one module of the Boeing’s tail parts for example, was reduced by nearly 800 parts and the weight was reduced by 1,650 pounds. With modular production, the shipbuilding industry also has changed dramatically. Modules on military ships containing major control systems have now been designed to provide easy exchangeability since the life of a smart module is much shorter than the ships life. These smarts modules can now be replaced as needed without much transformation to other parts of the ship.
The difference between these industries and architecture is that buildings are attached to the ground. For that reason, there are some segments, such as foundation, that need to be built on site. This fact alone poses a problem to for the offsite assembly process. The construction crew has to assemble prefabricated segments with very high precision tolerances with elements built on-site that have a much lower level of precision. At that point, the parts of this modular puzzle may not fit together as they were designed to. This issue has yet to achieve a consistent solution.
There are many benefits of evolving architecture to the use of this system. The precision of prefabricated parts allow for a better product quality. Building costs can be significantly reduced. Different segments of the building can be worked on simultaneously, leading to shorter construction duration. And keep in mind, off-site fabrication does not mean repetitive appearance. Mass production has been replaced with mass customization. Another advantage of building indoors is also to not have to depend on weather conditions to determine construction time.
Kieran and Timberlake did an internal research project to virtually reconstruct the Farnsworth House using off-site prefabrication. The 1,267 original number of parts was reduced to somewhere between 22 and 48 components. The weight of the structure was reduced by 60%. Boeing Worldwide Constructs also did and experiment with the Farnsworth House. In their project, the house was erected in three days with more performance features and for a lower cost than the original.
Like everything else, this method also may have its down side. Off-site fabrication does not benefit local workers that will have their jobs taken by someone in another state or maybe even another country. The architect now has to strategize for fragmentation. Systems and computer programs like CAD/CAM and Computer Numerical Control are essential for architects to produce with this new method.
Either position you take, the fact is that off-site prefabrication finally puts architecture in a position that we have never been before. The precision of these modules allows us to design at much higher quality than traditional methods. Now quality x scope is greater than cost x time, and that in itself is evolution! -PSB