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Contractors Turn To 'Prefab' Construction Amid Skilled Labor Shortage

There’s another hotel sprouting up in downtown Phoenix. As the urban core fills in, construction crews have less room to work. It’s just one of the reasons many contractors are turning to prefabricated construction.

A semi stacked with pre-made wall panels enters the site at First and Polk streets as Project Engineer Zeke Delgadillo looks on. “It’s all panelized exterior panelized interior all the way through finishes on the exterior and drywall on one side on the interior,” he said.

A giant crane lifts the panels up to what will become the 11th floor of a Hampton Inn. The prefabbed walls all have a designated place so workers can put them up quickly and efficiently.

"Currently we’re looking at, from start to finish and install, for a sequence of a floor we’re looking at 15 days,” Delgadillo said. "It definitely is a time saver."

Inside on the 11th floor, two workers hoist up a prefabbed wall and slide it into place. All the components — wall sockets, wiring, plumbing — are already in the wall.

On the lower floors where more intricate, specialized work is needed, you’ll still find masons, electricians and plumbers. But on the upper floors where all the rooms are the same, there are no tradesmen at all.

Trade Unions Embrace Prefab

Dean Wine is the Arizona Building Trades President. He said trade unions have embraced the prefab process. "I mean unions never like to see skilled jobs go away but you have to embrace change sometimes." He said low wages in Arizona have decimated the skilled labor force. “We have a lot of members who go to California and they’re making $70 an hour for electricians, so when we’re paying $27, people leave.”

He said unions are adapting to the changing landscape by adding new classifications for laborers with less experience. "If you’re not an apprentice or a journeyman, we still have a place for people who have a mid-range of experience to come and do the prefab work and kind of learn stuff about the trade as they move up in it,” Wine said.

Assembly Line-Style Construction

At a warehouse in Tempe, workers on an assembly line are sanding and smoothing a wall panel causing white insulation dust to cover them like snow. Scott Root is the managing executive of Kapture Group, the company making the prefabbed walls for the Hampton Inn.

"We have 32,000 square feet in the shop," Root said. "It’s set up in the assembly line manner so that the material comes in, gets staged and then goes to each of the stations.”

Workers assembling the walls follow instructions that look a lot like what you’d get with your IKEA bookcase. The plans are printed on a simple 11 by 17-inch sheet, color-coded to make assembly easier for less skilled workers.

It takes about four days for a panel to get all the way down the line and ready to be shipped to the construction site.

But Root said eventually he wants to expand from just building panels to "building large modules of buildings in a shop and delivering those to a job site and then that’s where assembling as a lego block will really add benefit to the clients.”

Cheaper and Quicker Projects

Back in downtown Phoenix, Chase Gibbs is keeping an eye on the Hampton Inn site. He’s a project manager for Mortenson, the contractor for the job. “Most of our owners always want things quicker and cheaper and in order to do that you have to find better ways of building it,” Gibbs said.

He said prefab construction allowed them to shave two weeks off the project, which is huge for a property like a hotel. “The quicker you open to the public, the quicker you’re gonna gain revenue and the less overhead you’re gonna have to build it of course.”

He said they’re on schedule to have all 11 floors and 210 rooms built by May of 2018.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.