What is a DfMA approach to construction, and how does it enable a faster build?

Over the years, Richard Meacham has spent a great deal of time reflecting on what is driving change in the construction industry. As an architect on DIRTT’s constructability team, he’s naturally curious about it.

But in today’s climate things are different.

“What always is driving change?” he asks from his Seattle-area office. “One is the technology, the other is the customer requirements. Customers want to build faster.”

Meacham clarifies the point with a quick summary of how construction talks used to be and how they are now: “I want a building next year. I want it now. I wanted it yesterday. I need space instantly.”

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The need for speed is driven by market demands as well as growing awareness of human needs catalyzed by post-pandemic recovery plans. Healthcare systems in the United States require more space or upgraded space. Office buildings are being upgraded to accommodate new ways of working. And a housing crisis has taken over the United States.

This is on top of the now-common labor shortages that extend project timelines and drive up costs, as well as supply chain disruptions and material shortages.

Conventional construction cannot satisfy this constantly growing need for space. For this reason, many architects and general contractors (GU) have in recent years been looking for faster ways to build – without sacrificing quality or design aesthetics.

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The solution? “Prefabrication and Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA),” says Meacham.

Why is DfMA so important in today’s construction industry?

A DfMA approach means you manufacture building components off-site to standard designs and specifications for later assembly. DfMA isn’t a new idea—it’s already widely used to make things like cars, airplanes, and even electronics like your smartphone.

In the context of construction, this approach allows components of a building or room to be manufactured in a factory and then assembled when they arrive on site.

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When you simplify the design and build process through DfMA, built spaces can be built faster and more efficiently, and at a lower cost. DfMA also helps reduce waste, lowers the risk of project delays and requires fewer on-site staff to build quality interiors.

On paper, DfMA presents a number of advantages over traditional design approaches. In practice, the same applies, especially when the unknown is discussed in advance and misunderstandings are addressed head-on.

For those exploring the application of DfMA in the design and construction of buildings, Meacham offers three key considerations.

Photo by Credit Latitude Photography

1. Architect and GC roles are complementary – not combative – in a DfMA approach

This is perhaps the biggest misconception about DfMA, so Meacham addresses it head-on.

Traditional construction places the responsibility of determining the “means and methods” of a project on the GC. Means and methods refer to the tactics and procedures used to complete the construction of a project or structure. Some believe that when moving to a DfMA approach, the responsibility shifts away from the GC and into the design team alone. Meacham says that’s not the case.

“There is a misconception that at DfMA there is a constant back and forth between the design team and the contractors in terms of design intent, means and methods,” he says. “Some people think that DfMA gives the design team the responsibility for how things are built. That’s just not accurate. The builders still possess the means and methods of construction as they should. They are the experts in this field.”

In a DfMA approach, design documents—the working drawings and specifications for the project—outline the design intent based on assemblies. According to Meacham, they must be developed using an assembly-based approach to clearly communicate how each sub-assembly contributes to the formation of the finished product and to help the design team work through the various stages of a project. But it doesn’t change the responsibility for who does what when it comes to construction.

“A key difference of an assembly-based approach to engineering drawings is the ability to clearly define where the scope of one trade begins and ends in drawing A, and where the scope of another trade begins in drawing B.”

As Meacham points out, this allows contractors to more easily and clearly work through the means and methods of each assembly and to define who is responsible for components of the overall scope in their contracts.

DfMA actually enables better Alignment between architects, GCs and other stakeholders as they all work together from the beginning of a project. Architects can design to make the process more efficient as they design and detail a building as it will actually be constructed. GCs know from the start that the designs are buildable and each component knows where it is needed.

Photo by DIRTT

2. Mass customization is absolutely possible with DfMA

Although it is beginning to change, there is still a misconception that DfMA and prefabrication can only produce building interiors off the cuff. For some this is no longer the case building systems This makes it possible to be customizable for day one and customizable for day two and beyond.

By combining a Building Information Modeling (BIM) process with computers, we can offer architects total design freedom – including finish, materials, dimensions and structure,” says Meacham. “We can make mass adjustments at the factory level. We do all that now at DIRTT.”

So how is customization possible with a DfMA approach?

“We design all of the unique connections between the parts in advance, so each part can be uniquely customized as it is manufactured,” he says. “The built structures will be coherently assembled on site because we have solved design and manufacturing problems in the digital environment. This all happens before we even get to the site.”

A DfMA approach has already been used to create space in countless buildings, including jobsinside health Center and educational spaceas well as public sector Building. A DfMA approach even took some getting used to prefabricate the entire castle experience at Disneyland in Hong Kong.

The trick to building these areas with DfMA, Meacham says, is getting everyone on board from the start.

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3. With intelligent planning, DfMA is not difficult to implement or execute

At first glance, DfMA might seem complicated. One of the reasons for this is that everyone uses different design software.

Meacham says it doesn’t matter as long as a BIM execution plan is in place.

Because BIM is a highly collaborative process that enables architects, engineers, real estate developers, contractors and fabricators to plan, design and build a structure or building within a 3D model, it is crucial to start the process to understand who is doing what.

This eases implementation by establishing clear collaboration and handoff points throughout the process and simplifies the integration of different tools throughout the project flow.

For example, a designer can work through schematic plans using the best software intended for the job. They can then move on to another tool to document their work for construction-level detailing. And as the process progresses, in another handover, this information is sent to the client, who can then use their own tools as well.

Understanding handoffs and tools before work begins ensures a smooth process. And the collaboration points ensure alignment between different stakeholders.

“Ultimately, building is a team sport,” says Meacham. “And all the different stakeholders get better at collaborating when they use DfMA because that’s an inherent part of the approach. Implementation and execution is about getting everyone on the same page from the start. If you do that, things will go well.”

Visit DIRTT.com to learn more about the construction system of DfMA and DIRTT.

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