The Electrical Worker online
April 2015

Strategy, Training, Cultural Change
Technological Revolution
Advances in Construction
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

The latest revolution in the commercial construction industry came in waves of trucks transporting prefabricated concrete walls and floors to construction sites. On those sites, the dwindling lines of cement trucks and fewer workers in black boots floating and finishing concrete were probably noted by all, but mostly taken to heart by the trades affected.

Today, similar market forces are altering the nature of electrical work in the construction industry — in a big way. It used to be that construction was predominantly done outdoors, within often harsh, unpredictable elements; no longer.

Whether it is called prefabrication or modularization, a growing segment of construction work is taking on the characteristics normally associated with manufacturing. Mass production and "lean" manufacturing techniques that increased the competitiveness of domestic industries like automobiles are being increasingly applied to electrical construction.

Electricians are constructing whole floors of hospitals, office buildings and even nuclear power plants on the ground in climate-controlled warehouses, only later installing them in the nearly finished structures. Labor and material costs are lower and time at the job site is reduced. For employers hoping to gain the upper hand in tight competition with nonunion companies, prefab will be an important tool, says IBEW International Representative John Bourne, who works on business development.

The marriage of construction and manufacturing has major consequences for contractors, electricians, the IBEW and the Electrical Training Alliance (formerly the NJATC).

"It's hard for some of us veteran electricians to get our heads around prefab," says Bourne. "But the bottom line is no one is better suited to master these methods and technology than IBEW members. If we don't, our contractors will lose big projects. When a customer is building a billion-dollar hotel, he is looking to reduce construction time. That's where prefab comes in. Mastering prefabrication is all about gaining more projects to keep more journeymen and apprentices working."

Construction's Wake-Up Call

The North American construction industry's prefab wake-up call came in 2010 in a time-lapse YouTube video from China showing a 15-story hotel being built in just six days. The new era of prefabrication had arrived.

The video was aired at the 38th International Convention in Vancouver by Rex Ferry, the outgoing president of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

"I, like you in this room, used to think that [electrical construction was] import-proof," Ferry told delegates. "But, when I searched for this video to show to my members, I did a "China prefab" search and ended up getting four pages of companies in China that are prefabbing … I strongly believe we are in an industrial revolution … We need to sit down and come up with the ways to make us more competitive in this new and ever changing market."

New methods of construction require new skills and using old skills in new ways. Contractors employing hundreds or even thousands of IBEW members, like Rosendin Electric, say one of their greatest needs is for designers who combine the journeymen skills of an electrician with a mastery of 3D building information modeling (BIM)software and other technical tools.

The old blueprints are being replaced by digital drawings and the best people to wield the stylus in the cubicles, say contractors, are those who know the electrical trade at the ladder level.

Joan Fultz, a 38-year Dayton, Ohio, Local 82 member and her local's first woman journeyman, is a prefab pioneer. In 2002, she was working on the National Archives and Records Administration building in Dayton, when her employer, Chapel Electric, decided to prefabricate a complicated lighting system in the facility's large warehouse. Chapel's owner, Dennis Quebe, formerly NECA's national president, and the company's president, Buck Ross, both IBEW hands, were "progressive and willing to try new things," she says.

"I was skeptical myself when we first started prefabbing," says Fultz, who worried about the impact on the number of journeymen and apprentices who would be called out. Her concerns were quickly answered as she saw the potential for jobs to be finished quicker, freeing workers up to begin new phases or entirely new projects.

Large-Scale Prefab on Ohio Hospital Project

By 2010, Fultz, who has worked as a foreman, general foreman and project manager, was at the center of one of the first large-scale prefabricated projects launched by a North American signatory contractor. Chapel Electric's futuristic work on a 12-story, 250,000-square-foot addition at Miami Valley Hospital was celebrated on the cover of ENR (Engineering News Record) and two other trade publications.

Working with Chapel's 3D designers, Fultz helped ensure that all of the electrical components needed for 178 patient rooms and 120 corridors were properly arrayed in a 21,000-square-foot former warehouse, two miles from the job site and staffed by mechanical, electrical, plumbing and drywall trades.

The Miami Valley project brought jobs, hope and attention to a local union struggling to survive in a once-strong industrial metropolis named one of the 10 fastest-dying U.S. cities in 2009. The hospital's construction schedule was cut by two months, costs were reduced nearly 2 percent and there were zero injuries on the job.

Completed sections, or pods, were transported to the job site on Saturdays, when the project's tower crane was free to lift them onto the hospital's floors.

It only took eight hours to install 33 bathroom pods, and a week-and a-half to install most of the rooms and corridors on each 30,000-square-foot patient floor.

Today, Fultz says, almost all of the projects that come through Chapel's office are coordinated through BIM. And she has helped other signatory contractors set up prefab shops in joint ventures.

As she observes designers and planners on the jobsite using iPhones and tablets, Fultz, who has initiated a mentoring program in Local 82, says, "I tell all our apprentices to never stop learning and go back to school and master the software and new tools that are being used in the field."

Merging Journeyman/Designer Skills

"We have leveraged the skills of software experts with the skills of IBEW wiremen to form the most recognized BIM team in North America," says David Elkins, Rosendin's general superintendent covering the company's Southwest and Mid-Atlantic region.

"Since it's electricians who review drawings and specifications, they are able to use their firsthand experience to understand that just because one can theoretically model something a certain way, that doesn't mean you should," says Elkins. "Unless you have been in the field, you don't know how difficult it may or may not be to install a raceway modelled and prefabricated a certain way."

With more accurate information Rosendin began to deepen its use of "packaging," also called "kitting," putting pre-assembled rough-ins for three or four rooms of a building on carts and delivering them to electricians who installed them without taking time to go searching for the job's components.

Rosendin has built prefab facilities totaling 100,000 square feet, employing IBEW members in nine shops from California and Oregon to Virginia. The company's facility in Sherman, Texas, a subsidiary of Rosendin Holdings, employs 25 members who pre-assemble and pre-wire electrical skids destined for large customers across North America.

At Rosendin's Tempe, Ariz., facility, Elkins says, the company has combined the concept of "just in time" delivery with prefabrication.

"Since the BIM department is literally feet away from the prefab department, the teams work together with incredible efficiency," says Elkins. Throughout the prefab process, he says, are multiple quality control checkpoints, eliminating possible rework in the field. Components are loaded on trucks and only delivered the day they are being installed, packaged in a way that reduces waste, improves safety and reduces cost, allowing the company to be competitive in nonunion markets.

Vincent Poole, an eight-year member of Elmira, N.Y., Local 139, works as a prefab shop foreman for signatory John Mills Electric. "Prefabrication is particularly effective when we move from one phase of a job to the next," says Poole, who says he prefers working with tools to spending time at a computer console.

On a recent project, says Poole, electricians had installed branch circuitry before a building's walls were erected. Journeymen and apprentices who once would have been laid off until the next phase began were brought into the prefab shop to prepare for the next phase, trading 13-degree winter cold for a climate-controlled shop with bright LED lights and parts and tools nearby, not 20 minutes down the road.

Mike Jensen, a 17-year member of Atlanta Local 613 and former JATC instructor, works for Cleveland Electric, employing 1,000 IBEW members and currently using prefabrication on projects including hospitals, a major pharmaceutical company campus and the Atlanta Falcons stadium. Jensen says out of Cleveland Electric's 20 BIM designers, 17 are IBEW members. "We see ourselves as doing work virtually before we do it physically. Technology keeps coming. We need to embrace it, not fight it," he says.

Merle Porter, a Rosendin field supervisor and 24-year journeyman wireman member of Los Angeles Local 11, says he never thought a computer would be a regular part of his job. Today, he shows up on a project with an iPad, pulls up on a screen the room or floor he is working on and performs quality control checks to make sure the company's needs are being met. "It would help us out if we had more apprentices topping out who had a full knowledge of BIM," says Porter.

Tightening Up Building Information Modeling Training

The Electrical Training Alliance of Phoenix Local 640 is moving in just that direction. The alliance began a second set of classes, four nights and four hours long in late 2014 to familiarize apprentices and journeyman with BIM. The popular classes, paid in part by employees, are supported by seven employer representatives. The local worked with Autodesk Software Inc. and the Electrical Training Alliance to secure software suites at discounted prices for the training.

"The BIM classes are designed to bridge a gap between the computer guys who do the modeling and the field personnel," says Local 640 Electrical Training Alliance Director Shawn Hutchinson.

Ken Beach, a 12-year Local 640 member who attended the first round of classes said, "It was a good pilot class. We gave the instructor a lot of insight and our three days were lost in time as we were engulfed in computers."

The Electrical Training Alliance is developing a BIM course that can be delivered at training centers or online. A train-the-trainer program for the curriculum will be included at the next meeting of the National Technical Institute, says Jim Boyd, the alliance's senior director. The alliance has also established a purchase program for training centers to obtain licenses for Autodesk software at a reduced price.

"We are extremely open to receiving input from IBEW members into the development of our curriculum," says Boyd.


Chapel Electric's Miami Valley Hospital project in Dayton, Ohio, used 3D design to array electrical components for patient rooms and corridors in a 21,000-square-foot prefab facility staffed by multiple trades.


Joan Fultz, right, a 38-year member of Dayton, Ohio, Local 82, is a prefab pioneer who advises new members to master the software and new tools that are being used in the field.



Rosendin Electric has built prefab facilities totaling 100,000 square feet, employing IBEW members in nine shops from California and Oregon to Virginia.


Working in climate-controlled prefab facilities, IBEW members are helping reduce construction time and costs, enabling contractors to get the jump on new projects.

Contractors Say: No More 'Missing the Boat' on Prefab

In 2011, Lindsay Mills, president of John Mills Electric, based in Elmira Heights, N.Y., a governor of his local NECA chapter, attended one of the group's meetings where prefabrication was discussed. "A big chunk of contractors were prefabbing," says Mills. "I asked myself how we missed the boat."

Mills sent project managers to seminars on lean construction and arranged visits with two contractors already invested in prefabrication, a large nonunion business in Baltimore and a large union shop in Seattle.

Upon the managers' return, Mills reached out to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Local 163, Elmira, N.Y., Local 139 and Ithaca, N.Y., Local 241 for support. "The business managers said, 'If this stuff works, we won't stand in the way," says Mills, who went ahead and doubled the size of the company's office space and constructed a prefabrication shop.

"Prefab is an evolution," says Mills, who employs 110 IBEW members. "We need buy-in from top to bottom," journeymen electricians, for instance, who will call the prefab foreman with ideas for improvement.

"We finished some eye-opening, good projects with prefabrication," says Mills. Projects have enlisted crews of journeymen, apprentices, construction wiremen and construction electricians. They include prevailing wage rate work in hospitals and commercial buildings.

Prefabrication, says Mills, has helped to keep a more constant workforce, minimizing surges and falloffs, to remain competitive in choice markets like schools.

Because of security concerns, more school districts are demanding that construction work be performed when classes are not in session, says Mills. Prefabrication allows projects to continue while students are in class and stay ahead of schedule when schools recess.

"We started dabbling in prefab in 2011, but took a leap of faith in 2013," says Ray Bruegman, president, Miller Electric. "We've had uphill battles and climbs but we've seen success. We have been following the ratios of our collective bargaining agreement to staff our prefab shops and we are now getting work done faster in the field."

Start-up costs for facilities and software for full-scale prefabrication are significant, but contractors say prefab yields significant cost advantages. Getting the balance right is now part of the IBEW's recently-launched Market-Based Contractor Training, designed to help union members found their own contracting businesses. The reality is owners of large-scale projects are demanding prefabrication, including Apple, which is building a 1-million-square-foot campus in California, says Gerald Pfeiffer, business manager, San Jose, Calif., Local 332.

Prefab is not just for large projects, warns John Bourne, an IBEW international representative assigned to business development. Niche applications are proving nearly as profitable. Oklahoma Electric Supply, staffed by members of Oklahoma City, Local 1141, for instance, markets prefabricated temporary power systems for construction sites.

"You used to go out with an auger and a drill to power a site," says Seventh District International Representative Gary Buresh. "Now the temporary system is built on skids and set in the ground with a forklift. What used to take two days, takes two hours.


Lindsay Mills, president of John Mills Electric, Elmira Heights, N.Y., says prefabrication has helped keep a constant workforce to remain competitive in choice markets like school construction.