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Oct262015

Prefabrication’s Potential: Creating Delight in Tall Buildings 

Prefabrication can minimize the cost of tall building construction, but far too many prefabricated buildings lack the aesthetic value seen in traditionally constructed tall buildings like the Shanghai Tower. Image © Gensler

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” – Albert Einstein

Tall buildings are expensive. So expensive that constructing them is an extremely risky financial endeavor. The amount of funds required to plan and erect a tall building means that developers are deep in the red long before the first tenant rent check comes due. Managing that level of debt is difficult, particularly when premium capital is scarce. With investors expecting strong returns on their money, developers are always looking for ways to minimize the upfront costs tall buildings require.

The long pre-planning stages tall buildings require—not only through the design phases, but also including demolition and substructure works, which are often undertaken while the detail design and documentation are done—mean the timelines for these structures can straddle one to two commercial cycles, from inception to completion. This length of time means any refinements that can be made to speed up construction carry huge benefits for developers, investors and prospective occupiers. This is where prefabrication could come into play.

Prefabrication is a process in which certain components of a finished building (glass modules for the external façade, composite structures, etc.) are pre-assembled in a factory and then transported to the construction site. They are then fitted together—think of the most complex Lego set ever imagined. Prefabrication can significantly reduce costs and construction times for tall buildings. It is becoming popular in China, where rapid urbanization has created an unprecedented need for tall buildings. At least one Chinese company has become so enamored with using prefabricated materials that they can allegedly erect tall buildings in just 19 days.

Ark Hotel, Changsha, China, (2012) Broad Group

There is no question that prefabrication holds great potential for minimizing short-term building costs, but it seems the current generation of companies embracing prefabrication are neglecting to consider the long-term aesthetic value of the buildings their methods produce. The visibility of tall buildings gives them huge impact over the public realm; therefore, they must be designed and constructed for the benefit of the building users and the public at large. It’s critical that prefabricated buildings do not overlook the quality of their internal environment or the exterior aesthetic, because these buildings define the overall identity of the cities they occupy. Tall buildings are complex entities, and failure to plan properly for the sake of speed can lead to mistakes or oversights. Due to their scale, even minor oversights can have major ramifications once the building is completed.

If architects and developers want to use prefabrication in a way that’s both financially and aesthetically beneficial, they must heed the lessons taught by the first architects to use prefabricated materials. French metal worker and self-taught designer Jean Prouvé pioneered the process of small scale prefabrication in construction projects, like his demountable house prototype, in order to ensure the quality control of building elements by manufacturing off site to speed up their assembly on site.

In the 1970s and 80s, the British high tech architectural movement with Norman Foster and Richard Rogers in particular used this philosophy to design many impressive larger scale buildings. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the Lloyds of London building are prime examples of prefabrication in glass and steel modular form; the latter building also used precast concrete for the external frame.

The architects behind these projects chose prefabrication not just for its cost savings potential, but because it imbued the forward thinking construction method into the aesthetic and visual interest of the building itself. The prefabrication techniques they employed helped create scale and hierarchy and a compositional quality that accentuated the building construction process as an expression of the architecture. There’s a delight found in understanding how these buildings’ construction process helps define their visual appeal.

Unfortunately, some contemporary prefabricated buildings are totally bereft of this delight. Their appearances give no hint whatsoever that they have used a prefabrication approach to construction, nor does the prefabrication articulate its structural or compositional design. Some of the prefabricated buildings in China are systemic of a larger problem: the country’s tall buildings meet the ground in a way that gives little consideration to the people who do not live or work there or have to pass by every single day of their lives. The architect Richard Rogers often reminds us that an architect always has responsibilities to two clients: the one who commissions and enjoys the delights of the buildings we produce and the public at large, who should also enjoy the presence of our work.

As bullish as I am about the cost savings and general efficiencies offered by prefabrication, I strongly believe we, as architects, must incorporate some of the less quantifiable aspects of design into all the tall buildings we erect. After all, not everyone will remember whether a building was completed in record time and/or under budget, but history will judge the success of these buildings on their beauty and performance to both occupant and passer-by.

Russell Gilchrist is a design director in Gensler’s Shanghai office and a global leader of Gensler’s Tall Buildings practice. He specializes in high performance low energy architecture and master planning projects and has been an active in recent years for the Council for Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Contact him at Russell_gilchrist@gensler.com.

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