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The dawn of “digital construction”… but DIRTT’s been doing it for years.

Prefabrication for buildings is older than you might imagine. In 1902 you could buy a home from the Sears catalogue. However, for most people, prefab has never been particularly desirable. Sure, getting a structure prebuilt is fast and it’s certain – but when it comes to physical space, we humans like what we like.


Sears Archives, Sears Homes 1908-1914 Sears Archives, Sears Homes 1908-1914

 “Prefabrication - there is not another word in the current lexicon of architecture that more erroneously asserts positive change,” writes author and architect Chris Knapp in his article, Why It’s Time to Give Up on Prefab in Arch Daily. Chris’s premise that prefab hasn’t been able to offer architects the tools to do their job in giving clients a bespoke outcome. Granted, he is talking about whole buildings and he’s okay with some components being prefab – Components that do not require architectural know-how.

But it’s this paragraph that captured my attention (NOTE: His spelling is Australian):

“Having now moved beyond the industrial age and fully into the era of information, the capacity to customise and to mass-produce difference as enabled by automated, digital and real-time processes has never been more viable. Yet ‘prefabrication’ is not an adequate or appropriate concept for the discipline to take forward. Similar to the innovative semantic shift that saw the sale of ‘used’ cars change to ‘pre-owned’, architecture needs to put a similar tactic in play and do away with ‘prefabrication’. It is a conceptual and semantic anachronism, and a deleterious one at that.”

I read feverishly ahead to find out what that new word or term would be. Alas, he didn’t say. I’ve written to Chris to see if someone edited out the solution he cried out for – or if he, like DIRTT, hasn’t landed on an appropriate term to sum up this “digital, real-time, tailored, fast, clean, certain construction” method. For a while there, we just landed on “A Whole New Idea.” I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s long on adjectives and short on specifics.

What Chris writes is true. For prefab construction to be universally accepted it must be open to extreme personalization for each end-user. And yes. That means 21st century technology. One where production facilities seamlessly respond to each unique project, each moment of every day. One where customers get an engaging understanding of the design, know how much it will cost and how long it will take. This exists now – but it’s only just beginning. So far, DIRTT is the first of our kind in construction. Others are gearing up for this revolution in all kinds of manufacturing. Personalization is the name of the game. Adidas is trying it with shoes at their Speedfactory. Nearly everyone is scrambling to get out of the commodity business. Olivier Scalabre spoke about this at a TED Talk a few years ago.

So why is this still so hard in 2018?

Traditionally, manufacturers of any product are only profitable if their facilities produce standardized items. Same sizes. Same shapes. Same finishes. Over and over. Originally someone in their company built a business case for the product. Another team marketed it to the world. A sales force armed with brochures and white papers (or a Sears catalog!) hit the road to sell as much as possible.

If a customer wanted something customized, as is often the case in the architectural world, the sales person would eagerly agree and everyone else at the factory would have to figure out how to price it, design it, engineer it and produce it… without going broke. Meanwhile the client is in the dark as to how long is this going to take, how much it is going to cost and what it is really going to look like? At that point, you might as well go with conventional construction.

And we haven’t even touched on why conventional construction is so cookie-cutter these days!

What is this 'Digital Construction'?

More research...

There’s an international conference being held in London in October. It’s dedicated to a possible term for what we’re doing: Digital Construction. While it isn’t a household word, it does sum things up better than anything else. We’re using digital information to create a virtual experience that translates directly to the construction of the design.

Digital Construction as an idea is mostly in the early stages. A group in the UK, called B1M has a terrific series of videos explaining what it is  and why it’s needed. For the most part, it’s still a disconnected field. BIM detects collisions and uses 3D graphical information. Virtual Reality allows you to immerse yourself in the design. And there are dozens of collaboration and communication tools to stop people from working from old information. Behind the scenes on the manufacturing floor the teams all have their own software programs.

As of this writing we are the only ones with the software that does it all. Our ICE® platform goes from the design of the interiors and all modifications in virtual reality, through to the production facilities where everything from walls and windows to doors and electrical outlets are produced to each client’s specifications, all the way to the jobsite and even to future maintenance and adaptation.

ICE goes beyond spatial design and how it’s made, venturing into the realm of 5-D BIM. It includes cost and schedule considerations for every project, letting owners fully see how changes will affect project budgets and timelines.  The next-gen approach to information modelling is one of five trends shaping construction according to McKinsey&Company.

If you check out our case studies, you’ll hear directly from people who have used this method to build the interiors of their schools, clinics, hospitals and offices. There’s even a hotel renovation. We interviewed general contractors, architects, skilled trades and, of course, clients to find out why they considered “digital construction” in the first place plus what scared them about it, and of course – why they are so happy with the outcome they were willing to tell the world about it.

Digital Construction …it has a ring to it.


Julie Pithers

DIRTTbag since (almost) day one, Julie cultivates communities who love DIRTT as much as she does. She cares about environmental sustainability, optimism and finding things funny.


DIRTT Environmental Solutions uses its 3D software to create prefabricated interiors. Each space is tailored to our clients' needs. Manufacturing facilities are located in Phoenix, Savannah and Calgary. DIRTT works with nearly 100 Partners throughout North America, the Middle East and Asia. DIRTT trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol "DRT".