Rebuilding the construction industry

A U of A engineering professor’s research is at the forefront in a construction revolution that would move most construction workers into factories—dramatically improving work quality and productivity and reducing waste and environmental impact.

By designing a process in which five three-storey student dormitories were built in 51 days at a U.S. college in 2005, Mohamed Al-Hussein of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and his industrial partners proved there are enormous efficiencies to be gained by prefabricating buildings and constructing them modularly. Entire sections of the student dorms at Allentown Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College—from flooring and fixtures to exterior brick finishes—were assembled at a factory more than 100 kilometres from the construction site, delivered to the campus and lifted into place with cranes.

Now, Al-Hussein, who holds the new NSERC Industrial Research Chair in the Industrialization of Building Construction, is working on ideas that will revolutionize the industry, prefabricating to a greater extent in a sort of assembly-line fashion.

“The efficiencies come from the manufacturing philosophy that, instead of moving people to the construction site, you bring the work to where the people are. In the factory, the same philosophy applies: you stay where you are and the work comes to you,” he explains.

One of Al-Hussein’s biggest supporters is Edmonton’s Landmark Group of Builders. CEO Reza Nasseri calls industrialization “a game changer” for his company and the industry. The company’s goal is to develop net-zero buildings by the year 2015, and Al-Hussein’s research is bringing that goal closer to reality.

Construction sites are “incredibly wasteful,” says Nasseri, but industrialization virtually eliminates material waste.

“It would sound like an exaggeration if I told you how much waste we have eliminated,” he says. “In our factory, waste has disappeared.”

His firm estimates that Al-Hussein’s process has eliminated five tonnes of CO2 emissions per home by eliminating nearly 200 vehicle trips to each construction site—just to complete the framing and roofing.

Al-Hussein says industry supporters are both drivers and contributors to the research process.

“They are really interested in applying this research and they are demanding more of it,” he says. “This type of research needed industry and the industry came forward. They provide our students with a place to access information . . . these companies are working on a daily basis with my students.”

One of his upcoming projects is a 34-storey apartment building in Brooklyn, New York—in less than 90 days.

“I think that what we are seeing today is just scratching the surface,” he says. “I’d like to see it grow to 20 or 40 or 50 per cent of the Canadian industry moving to this method.”