Risk avoidance drives disruption in construction practices

Sum of the parts

Disruption was in the spotlight at two recent Urban Development Institute (UDI) seminars, which highlighted how builders are trying to avoid disruptive construction programs with disruptive approaches.

Construction faces all sorts of hurdles from lengthy permitting processes to the availability of labour and, of course, pushback from neighbours. While municipal planners work flat out to handle the volume of work in construction environments, property owners in rapidly redeveloping areas face construction fatigue from a never-ending parade of projects.

This is where modular construction can play a role, according to a panel of builders UDI convened on March 5.

The time savings on a modular construction project can be up to 30% or 40%, according to Joe Kiss, president of modular solutions with Calgary-based Horizon North Logistics Inc. This means less construction noise for neighbours and, to quote Kiss’ fellow panellist Kevin Read, president and CEO of Nomodic (also of Calgary), faster “time to money.”

Nomodic completed a convenience store for Shell Canada in 80 days last year, shaving 55 days off the standard completion schedule. It’s now redeveloping and densifying an existing motel in Tofino. The accelerated timeline is possible through an integrated design and delivery process.

The result is a seamless process that virtually eliminates change orders and, in turn, waste. According to Paul Binotto, president of My Lane Home Inc. in Vancouver, modular residences generate 70% less construction waste.

Kiss added that prefabrication means 600 to 800 checkpoints per module – at least one per square foot – for tighter quality control than in conventional construction. This reduces the project’s risk profile while delivering space indistinguishable from a building erected using traditional methods.

Wood lends structure

While oenophiles discussed oak influences on wines during the Vancouver International Wine Festival at the end of February, a UDI breakfast seminar discussed the place of mass timber in construction.

“It is a bit of a flavour of the day at the moment,” opined Russell Acton, principal of Acton Ostry Architects Inc., which designed the groundbreaking 18-storey Brock Commons tower at the University of British Columbia. “But it’s a flavour that will linger on the palate and deepen over time.”

Part of the appeal, as with modular construction, is that the timbers are prefabricated and spend less time exposed to the elements during construction, which is typically faster than the average project.

“It’s quick, it’s clean, it’s quiet,” Acton said.

Fast + Epp Structural Engineers founder Paul Fast said owner-occupiers are driving the use of mass timber and particularly favour exposed elements that show off its presence. Developer-led projects are more conservative, with less than 5% proceeding to construction.

Projects with exposed mass timber typically have a higher cost, as the exposed beams require a greater thickness that addresses fire risks.

Fast said one of the biggest opportunities for mass timber, especially in exposed uses, is commercial construction, where strong lease rates justify the additional expense.

A new edition

While mass timber is drawing interest from companies that want to showcase their connection with and care for the environment, writers such as yours truly continue to work in what’s affectionately known as “the dead-tree industry.” (“We’re writers; we kill trees; that’s what we do,” quipped U.S. poet Daniel Nester back in 2011.)

But when the chance came to prepare a third edition of Real Estate Investing for Canadians for Dummies, written with Douglas Gray, mortgage rules and tax policies weren’t the only things needing revision.

References to old-style media, both print and television, were eliminated or updated to reflect the digital tools and resources now available to investors to track the market and keep tabs on their portfolios. Whatever the changes to lending and taxation, there’s probably no aspect of real estate that’s changed more than the technology associated with it.

And for those who want to save a tree, the new edition is available as an ebook from your favourite online bookseller. •

pmitham@telus.net