Are Prefab Buildings like the Alt Hotel an Opportunity for NL?

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After the crane drops the pods into place, there aren’t many more steps until you could actually stay at the new Alt Hotel on Prescott and Water.

Each room is prefabricated as a self-contained unit with its own plumbing, electricity, and even furniture. This unit is then plugged into the building’s systems and we’re off to the races.

The level of prefabrication used for this hotel is a first in St. John’s and it’s also a first for developer Le Groupe Germain. The decision for this lego style building came in part because of a desire to control quality, and in part because construction in St. John’s is so expensive.

A cost estimator we often work with, at Turner and Townsend, stated this construction method is becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe because buildings can be built much faster and cheaper.

Advocates of prefabrication state that it can speed up construction, increase quality, and decrease material waste. On projects I’ve been involved with, these things seem to make sense. The firm I work for, Fougere Menchenton Architecture, has been a real advocate for the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) within the province. While different than the Alt Hotel, CLT is a prefabricated building component that touts many of the same benefits.

We have used CLT in two buildings recently, that are owned and operated by the City of St. John’s: first the Southlands Community Centre, and then the Paul Reynolds Community Centre at Wedgewood Park. Our client, The City, was interested in using innovative and sustainable methods.

Their goals, combined with the short construction season and volatile weather, made CLT a clear choice. The panels were fabricated in a factory and dropped into place with a crane, much like the hotel pods.

If careful attention is paid to the design, CLT can be cost competitive with concrete or steel structures, but in my opinion has many benefits over those building materials. Exposed wood is more beautiful, less energy intensive to manufacture, and has better insulating properties than concrete or steel.

(Fun Fact: the production of CLT actually sequesters carbon which is good for the environment and the opposite of the production of concrete or steel which produces carbon.)

There are many factors at play in the design of a building, so while I wouldn’t unequivocally recommend wood or prefabrication, for these three buildings, it made economic and practical sense.

In this province, prefabrication makes less of a contribution to the local economy than more traditional ‘in situ’ construction. Rather than employing a crew to construct things on site, components are made outside the province. The hotel pods were fabricated in Poland, and the CLT was made by companies in Ontario or Austria.

The general consensus in the construction industry is that there just isn’t a market for fabrication/manufacturing facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador. A locally owned company tried to make a go of prefabricating homes in Makinsons, NL. While at the time, there was the market for that type of business here, it eventually folded. A home could be manufactured for the same price, but it reduced the construction time from a year to 4-5 months.

As an outsider, to me it appears there is a real opportunity to fabricate something like CLT within the province. The trees here used for lumber, mostly Black Spruce and Balsam Fir, are too small to make large wood beams, and too soft to make furniture.

Currently a lot of our wood goes to paper production, but would also be well suited to an engineered wood product, like CLT, which has a much longer lifespan and higher value than a sheet of paper. We don’t currently have the equipment to fabricate CLT on the island, but there are people making other engineered wood products like the pre-fabricated roof trusses that are in most homes today.

Since the drop in oil prices, there’s an available workforce. Hey, maybe we are even well suited for exporting. We’re closer to Europe than the rest of Canada, and many of the containers that bring goods onto the island leave here empty.

So while many say there’s no market – architects, engineers, developers, owners, and the public sector can create and encourage this industry. There’s room here for innovation, we have to do something to keep our province running.

About Author

Emily Campbell is the founder of the Wandering Pavilion, sits on the Public Awareness Committee of the Newfoundland and Labrador Architects Association, and works at Fougere Menchenton Architecture.

1 Comment

  1. “The general consensus in the construction industry is that there just isn’t a market for fabrication/manufacturing facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

    But I wonder if there is a market for construction… for export? E.g. Canada’s north. Easy access to port facilities could make this an interesting idea to explore.

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