Knowledge For Tenants and Investors
Sign up for Property Reports from Monster Commericial!

Integrated Prefab Solves Budget, Schedule and Heritage Building Protectionism

By Betsy Maddox

Taos, New Mexico is a spectacular tourist destination. It is also a small working town in a large, sparsely populated state. Construction projects in Taos are challenging and costly. When the University of New Mexico purchased the abandoned convention center downtown for just one dollar. They were determining if they could feasibly turn it into a health sciences campus that would draw faculty and students. At that point one dollar seemed like it might be too expensive.

“The county’s only 30,000 people,” said Jim Pollard, the university’s former construction manager. “I think the town itself technically may be 6,000 at this moment. We don’t have any contractors in the immediate area who can afford to issue performance bonds for a project of this size.”

Nearly all skilled trades would have to come from Albuquerque and stay during construction. “It’s good for the town’s economy for lodging and food,” said Pollard. “But it costs us in the end.”

Not until the architect, Doug Patterson from Living Design, mentioned the idea of using integrated prefab construction for the interiors, did the idea start to show promise. Currently there is only one provider of this method of specialty construction and that is DIRTT (Doing It Right This Time).  “I came later in the process to recognize how different the construction process is with DIRTT,” said Pollard. “Maybe I was sheltered and didn’t see enough, but this was really very revolutionary. Just build a shell, furnish a fixed floor at a fixed height and provide a ceiling, and rough-in the utilities by distributing power and data to various distribution points, rather than having to feed them into a wall and get them wired? This was unheard of. This is not a normal construction process.”

To educate himself on the idea, Jim Pollard, who also has a manufacturing background, went to the DIRTT production facilities in Phoenix. “The factory itself was a marvel to me,” said Pollard. “I saw the software there. And the first thing that struck me was not just how easy it would be to design, it was going to be easier to check. Easier to specify what we needed and easier to go through a submittal.”

The software he saw was developed in-house at DIRTT as a client-facing, front to back platform. It makes the DIRTT building elements user-generated. Every component has engrained rules allowing Jim and his design team to create whatever classrooms they want. All without expertise in the DIRTT system. The platform also automatically generates instant pricing, shop drawings and 3D fly-throughs where modifications can be made in real-time. “It was almost as if we were inside a virtual reality system. You could go in and look at each room and look at each output, look at each fixture, look at the height, look at the colour, look if the lines match up and change it if it didn’t.”

Due to the software’s delivery of the design directly to the factory floor, DIRTT production lead times range from 2 – 3 weeks. This allowed the team to continue designing and sourcing equipment right up to the last minute. “We were probably making corrections up to the second week before we released the order,” said Pollard. “Because it’s an existing building we didn’t have all our as-built dimensions and we had a few things that just needed to change. From a contractor’s point of view, and from our architect’s point of view, it was so much simpler. And error-free.”

Still the method of construction was a mystery to the team. Until they saw it for themselves, there was a level of disbelief. “The biggest surprise was how it affects the construction cycle,” said Pollard. “To strip this building, change over all the utilities, bring the power in, bring the data and power distribution, locate the water and then be ready for the carpenter and the ceiling grid? This is totally out of synch because we should have been building walls at this point. We should have been running wire and pipe and gas through all the walls.”

The upside-down schedule turned out to be the right way to go. “When we pulled the trigger, literally two and a half weeks later two semis pulled up one morning with the DIRTT components. By noon the following day they were packing up all of the crates and all but one person left. The 15,000 square feet was the way you see it right now. Just incredible.”

Pollard feels this revolutionizes the process. It took six months from the day they started to strip the building, get everything in and commission all of this equipment. “We could not have done that within that time without DIRTT,” confirms Pollard. “I really believe to this day that in this small space at least we cut about two months out of the construction process.”

The construction experience was a shock to the other trades on the project too. The minimization of their work and the reorganization of when things needed to happen was revelatory to them. “For a couple of months the expression passed from superintendent level down to the average apprentice, which was, ‘You’re going to do what?!’” The other trades couldn’t believe they were really done with their portion of work when the site seemed so bare. Ninety percent of it was being done at the factory, so they were scheduled to be off the job-site months earlier than normal. “But that didn’t stop their curiosity,” said Pollard. “All the electricians and all the HVAC people were hanging around wanting to see how all this works. In the end they all became great supporters.”

It was because of those labor savings, Pollard says he was able to hit his budget. “We ended up with a finish we could not have done, or afforded, had we gone with the traditional frame and finish operation.”

Taos is also fiercely proud of its culture and history. Anyone considering renovating, let alone building, faces a powerful community of protectionists. Jim Pollard also happens to be on the planning and zoning commission in Taos. “We are dealing with all these heritage buildings and a community that really treasures our architectural history. But that doesn’t help us with what’s inside the building.” The old convention center, while not authentic adobe construction, fit the local vernacular and any changes to its exterior were warned against. “I still love when somebody comes into this building for the very first time. They will say, ‘what a wonderful job you did in keeping that look of this building. You know, you’ve made it good for another 50 or 60 years.’ And then they get inside the door and they just are agog when they see such a high-performance nursing school. They forget the shell and forget that they’re in the centre of Taos.”

The interior is filled with all the technology and equipment needed to get national accreditation for graduates. Even though the current cohort only has 16 students, these up-and-coming nurses are vital to the small community. Now they have a local school that looks and acts a real hospital. Melissa Wohltman is the Nursing Program Director. She came to Taos for a vacation and fell in love with the area. She was thrilled to find they needed her expertise to help run the nursing program. She wasn’t quite as thrilled when she saw the original classrooms tucked in a low-tech basement. “Our faculty has gone from a situation where our offices had to double as classrooms to a space that feels like a hospital,” Wohltman explained. “Nursing is a really complicated profession these days. The learning environment is highly technical and the stakes are very high. This gives our students real-world situations.”

An added bonus in using integrated prefab construction is the classrooms are able to respond to future technologies without having to bring in trades to renovate. Jessica Sanchez was on the architecture team at the beginning of the project and now is the Construction/Project manager for the school. She has already taken advantage of the adaptability of the system. “The Padre Martinez Hall at the other campus was strictly a student centre,” Sanchez explains. Then the school hired a new CEO, but didn’t have an office for him. “We went back to ICE with my project manager, and we said, ‘Okay, we need to move these and these walls.’ In just a few moves, we had the complete new layout and in three days, I had a complete new office.”

The walls containing their plumbing, technology and equipment are all accessible by the facilities team. “If we had to do this with fixed walls, it would have never happened,” said Jim Pollard. “It would end up being stuck with an obsolete use in 10 years. With this system, we can adjust to whatever the needs of the school are going to be, or the next owner.”

For more information on this Taos University of New Mexico project see the video.

Betsy Maddox is with DIRTT Environmental Solutions

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Follow Monster Commercial TwitterLinkedinYouTube