The future of prefab; what was the situation in 2016 and where is it going?

The demand for a faster, cheaper and smarter building process has been on the rise for quite some time. During the crisis this demand slowed down a bit, but with positive building volumes in Europe the trend picked up steam again. In Q3 2016 we investigated the topic of prefabrication for the first time in our European Architectural Barometer. In Q3 2018 we will investigate this again and it is very interesting to see the results below again to see how architects look at prefab now and compare it to the data from 2016.

With the European Architectural Barometer (quarterly research among 1,600 architects in 8 European countries) we already investigated several ways of building smarter. A major component of this is of course BIM. This could also enable a cheaper (i.e. less failure costs) building process.

When talking about a faster building process, we know the demand in Europe is already there (except for Italy). We have also investigated the trend towards more modular building products. This trend is not only driven by a desire for a faster building process, but also by an expected lack of qualitative and quantitative labor force in the near future.

Overall, prefabrication is often mentioned as a way to build faster. Prefabrication means that buildings go up faster, and budgets are likely to stay lower. Furthermore, owners always want to get a return on investment as fast as possible.

Prefabrication in the residential market has made a transition from very humble beginnings as container homes, moving towards modular, precut, panelized housing and finally ‘fully’ prefabricated houses. In the commercial sector, we already discussed the way McDonalds is using modular building in the UK and how Google is constructing it’s new campus.

The Q3 2016 report of the European architectural barometer focussed on the future of prefabrication. The full report covers 8 countries, but for this article I would like to focus on the Netherlands and France (the two extremes when it comes to adaption of prefab).

As can be seen in the table, there was a huge difference in the percentage of projects in which prefab elements were used in. In the Netherlands, prefabricated elements are used in over half of all projects. In France, this was only 18%. Generally speaking, the French construction market is more conservative in many respects, but this difference is really significant. Almost 70% of the architects in the Netherlands expected that in the upcoming three years more prefabricated elements would be used, versus only 31% of French architects. Again, this is a significant difference.

The biggest advantage as perceived by Dutch and French architects was the same, a shorter building process. The biggest disadvantage perceived by the Dutch architects was a longer preparation time, whilst the French architects mention the lack of flexibility the most.

This difference can be explained by the fact that the Dutch had more experience with prefabrication. They didn’t experience a lack of flexibility while designing with prefabricated elements. However, it is still important to take sufficient time in the preparation phase.

The final decision maker when it comes to using prefab was also different in the two countries. Dutch architects mentioned the principal as the final decision maker whereas French architects mentioned themselves as the final decision maker.

The type of prefab mostly used in their projects is the same for the two countries. Most used are panelised systems, 3D prefab is used the least.

Also, the overall split between new build and renovation (and residential vs. non residential) is more or less the same for the 2 countries.

With these findings in mind, it will be interesting to see whether the use of prefab in France has caught up to the level of the other European countries over the past two years. Will the differences between the countries have diminished or enlarged?