Design Standardization Enables Innovative Prefabrication Strategy for Penn Medicine

The concept and practice of modular building isn’t exactly novel. 

In fact, it’s been around for decades. But current industry conditions—namely the shortage of skilled labor and impetus to deliver buildings faster, safer and more cost effectively—are driving leading contractors like Balfour Beatty to develop much more innovative prefabrication strategies than in years’ past.

Balfour Beatty, in a joint venture with LF Driscoll, is part of PennFIRST, an integrated project delivery (IPD) team building The Pavilion, a flagship hospital for Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, PA. On this 1.5 million-square-foot hospital that will house 504 patient rooms and 47 operating rooms, Balfour Beatty played an integral role in standardizing the building’s structural floor plate and interior design early in the project, which has rendered the prefabrication process much more efficient and effective. 

The LF Driscoll/Balfour Beatty joint venture (JV) maintains and operates a 60,000-square-foot warehouse located two miles from the jobsite where all prefabrication work occurs. Colloquially, this space is referenced as PennFAB. The JV project team oversees prefabrication of three primary building elements: mechanical racks, bathroom pods and zone valve boxes. 

Just as The Pavilion represents a historic opportunity for Penn Medicine to establish a new benchmark for care, its construction is also significant as the first project in Philadelphia to construct mechanical racks off-site. 

On a project of this magnitude and complexity, a streamlined design yields tremendous benefits within a lean prefabrication strategy. Using Kaizenapproaches, the PennFIRST-IPD team standardized the patient floor to only two patient room designs. Prefabrication achieves enhanced efficiencies via the reduction in total jigs and templates needed for manufacturing. 

The coordination of plumbing and structural steel was also a key focus. On 504 bathroom pods, the team maintained minimal plumbing variations. This has enabled a team of approximately 55 tradespersons to produce quality building elements in a controlled production environment that is safer, well-lit and more ergonomic. 

At their core, lean processes like prefabrication are rooted in enhancing people’s working environments and experiences. In addition to reducing on-site competition between trade partners for space and time, the PennFAB warehouse eliminates the need for those workers to park near or take public transit to and from the project site, located in a highly congested, urban environment.  

Over the entire project lifecycle, the JV project team will assemble approximately 559 MEP racks, 504 bathroom pods and 47 zone valve boxes (one for each operating room). Construction of the pods, which is facilitated by a team of 26 tradespersons, consumes 60% of the total warehouse space. Once pods are complete, the warehouse can accommodate storage of 28-40 units. 

This controlled construction environment has provided the team with an element critical to success: predictability. A single bathroom pod can be completed in 80 work hours, and a team of 26 workers can construct fourteen pods simultaneously. Quality, according to Andrew Menyo, project manager at PennFAB, is equally predictable. “Repeatable processes lead to higher quality, without a modular feel. No one would know these building components were produced off-site.”  

The Pavilion project has reaped value well beyond the established benefits of off-site construction. Continuous improvement is pivotal; initially, the MEP racks were crane-picked one at a time. The team made some design tweaks to the unistrut racking, which allowed three racks to be stacked. This saved over 200 crane picks. 

Although off-site construction has many tangible benefits, metrics like safety and quality control can be difficult to quantify, rendering some owners reticent to explore the process. Early in the project, the team coordinated, fabricated and installed large ductwork plenums during steel erection. By utilizing the crane to install prefabricated sections, the need to use duct jacks and scissor lifts was eliminated for this scope of work. This resulted in significant labor savings, along with improved quality.  

The Pavilion, which is slated for completion in 2021, is a model of how prefabrication strategies can be seamlessly integrated into a remarkable design to enhance the construction process. As the project progresses, the JV project team plans to explore additional building elements for prefabrication. Modular building may not be new, but as the PennFIRST IPD team is proving, it’s currently being reinvented right before our eyes.


The Japanese word for continuous improvement, Kaizen has come to mean the philosophy of continuous improvement.