Will Commoditisation of Prefab Make Bespoke Design Obsolete? 3

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015
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Design costs for the creation of certain categories of built asset could be removed completely by the commoditisation of the prefab building process.

While prefab construction methods are already widely touted for their ability to cut down on building times as well as materials labour costs, one industry believes the further industrialization and commodization of the process can lead to even more efficient and economical development of built assets to dispensing with the need for bespoke design work.

Aladin Niazmand, managing director at Health Projects International, believes the next step in the development of prefab construction for certain types of built assets will be the industrialization and commoditization of the building process, in which individual components are picked from catalogues and design costs are completely eradicated.

Speaking at PrefabAUS 2015, Niazmand noted that among two of the nine most expensive buildings on the planet are medical facilities in Australia – the Gold Coast University Hospital and Royal Adelaide Hospital, neither of which are situated in the country’s more teeming or populous urban centres.

According to Niazmand, the exorbitant cost of large-scale built assets such as hospitals is the result of the one-off, bespoke nature of their creation, which is arguably unnecessary given that their primary role is functional as opposed to aesthetic.

“What do we do with hospitals? We sit around the table – long committees – and say what, where, why, how, every time, and then we talk some bold language for six months to a year, and then eventually after several years get to making it,” said Niazmand. “Then we start the next project exactly all over again with zero base.”

Niazmand believes the cost of hospital development could be dramatically reduced via a standardised and commoditised form of prefab building that emulates other industrial processes, such as airplane or automobile construction.

“What has always worked and the only method that has always worked in reducing prices is standardisation, industrialisation and commoditisation,” he said. “Look at the aircraft industry and see how they do it. The Airbus A380 is a huge aircraft which can carry 800 people in the air for 20 hours.

“They invest $13 billion to develop it with factories, and they sell each one for $428 million – way below the cost of a hospital. You think with that investment they build just one? When you make that much investment, you don’t just build one, you deliver 167 of the same model over eight years with hardly any change.

“You have 13 airlines competing head to head order exactly the same model – they just change the seats and the paint on the outside – none of them say ‘I really want a different airplane.’”

According to Niazmand, the economies of scale achieved by other industrial processes that slash the cost of individual products are also applicable to the creation of built assets via the commoditisation of prefab construction.

“We can’t just go to a modular factory and say ‘just build this one for me this one-off hospital for me,’ because just like a single bespoke car it will cost you a billion,” he said. “You need to modularize the elements of design from scratch.”

In the case of hospital development, this means creating a full catalogue of comprehensive parts and components that clients can pick and choose from when it comes to producing their individual healthcare facilities.

“Guidelines are already modularized,” said Niazmand. “The IHG international health guidelines, for example, are broken down into modules of functional planning units, with virtual accommodation ready made and functional relationship diagrams.

“Elements of modular planning and room are available, ready made, and those rooms form a catalogue that clients can choose from…entire catalogues of entire hospital classes. It’s all commoditised and almost free – for a cost of as little as eight dollars.”

According to Niazmand, the upshot of the commoditisation of individual building components is a total reduction in design costs for certain types of built assets that lend themselves to development in various configurations using the same standardized parts.

“You have to commoditize – you have to build a thousand of each product all around the world,” he said. “Ultimately, and unfortunately, for our design friends, the design cost should be zero – it should be built into the product itself.”

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  1. Garry

    This article is pretty naive. Design costs are pretty damn low proportional to the costs of constructing anything. If you want to really reduce costs, look at automating the labour component, which is easily the biggest factor affecting costs.

    The decision making/ workshop/ committee processes established at the beginning of any large project may be time consuming, but they are not expensive relative to the overall project cost. They also help to ensure that a project's scope is properly defined – to ensure the end users are going to get what they need and want.

    Niazmand completely ignores the bespoke requirements of hospitals (the typology he picks out as an example), as well as the unique site conditions for any project. A 'standardized' hospital, if it were possible to create such a thing, would need to be so flexible and maleable to suit unique site, climatic/ environmental, planning, social, and a plethora of other requirements, that it may as well be designed from scratch.

    It should be noted that modularity and standardization has been a bit of a holy grail for many architects, and every single model created has fallen away & not succeeded long term.

  2. Mike Kelly

    Hi Marc. Another way to look at this is to see modern prefab tools and technologies as liberating the customer from the constraints of commoditisation. The term "mass customisation" is sometimes used for this, and perhaps the best example in current building is the kitchen process. Correctly set up, the process can produce 100 the same or 100 unique. Just need to identify and manage the manufacturing, installation and financial consequences, but I'm sure it will happen one day! Cheers.

  3. Arka

    Will this make all hospitals look the same? My point is, hospitals are not exactly aeroplanes. I am curious to know, how these hospitals will look like in the future.