Gabriel Santana Echeagaray
Business Development Director
Expert Contributor

The Environment Changes … And Construction? (Part 1)

By Gabriel Santana | Tue, 07/19/2022 - 17:00

(This is part 1 of a two-part article)

We all perceive the changes in daily life and we are affected by them, forcing us to modify our behavior, our customs and, above all, our beliefs. This happens in all activities of daily life; there is not a single one that should not be modified when external changes occur, without warning, without no discrimination toward people, companies or environment and above all, without mercy or patience for us to change.

The resistance to change among people and institutions is, without a doubt, one of the great problems of all time. Structural engineering and construction processes do not escape this terrible curse. These always want to remain in their comfort zones, which are the known areas of structural designers and builders, especially in a country like ours, so threatened by earthquakes of strong intensities. When a structural solution has already been tried and has been satisfactory, it is difficult to change to another that, apparently, is better but modifies the solution already experienced in this delicate and very important issue.

This article is dedicated to telling you what must be taken into account to make this change because what is undeniable is the fact that the absence or non-acceptance of innovative and disruptive technologies has prevented the construction industry from being simultaneously a more competitive, safe, resilient, modern, economical and durable industry. And we are going to refer at this time to the industry of prefabrication of concrete structures, which today in Mexico, is among the most innovative construction technologies.

What are the negative beliefs about the prefabrication of concrete structures that are most deeply rooted in the professionals working in architecture, structural design and construction? Allow me to cite the following:

It is only applicable to regular construction and ‘squares’

Of course, apparently that's what the prefabs are. But looking at them carefully, it is a false assumption. Although prefabrication is based on identical pieces that are repeated many times, this does not prevent the architect from having great freedom in designing shapes, free spaces with large openings, high load capacities, etc. Prefabrication, also supported by the prestressing of concrete, is a great ally for innovative architectural and structural engineering designs. In addition, we must not forget that concrete is initially a liquid material and will take the shape of the mold that contains it. Rather, the ingenuity of the designer is what allows the same piece to be used in many different ways, achieving results unattainable by other construction systems.

Prefabs are good but more expensive

This is perhaps the biggest taboo with which university students leave and exercise their first years as professionals. To correct this and eliminate it from their minds, it is necessary to enter the classrooms and teach this technology to those minds that are receptive, virgin and eager to learn at that time. We can only convince professionals who think that way with demonstrations of competitiveness in their own projects. We must look for them, find them and approach them so that they allow us to evaluate some of their projects and positively compare the results.

>Acceptable structural behavior cannot be guaranteed in earthquakes

It is natural to think that when a structure is made of many pieces that must be joined together, what will be at stake is its proper behavior in the event of a strong earthquake. Today, the prefabrication industry has developed experimental work at serious institutions, such as the UNAM Engineering Institute and CENAPRED, to demonstrate that these systems not only achieve this but even outperform traditional concrete construction systems. In addition, throughout these years and thanks, no doubt, to the openness of many structural designers, there are a good number of examples of prefabricated buildings that have behaved well in recent strong earthquakes.

Prefabrication is competitive in large construction projects

How true is this statement! And not only for prefabrication but for any construction system. The opposite is also true. In other words, prefabrication can be competitive in smaller-scale projects where it also provides all its advantages and the best results for the builder and the investor. While it is true that most of the projects built with prefabricated elements in Mexico have been large projects, it is also true that there are many prefabricated products that are rooted in the smallest scale, even in DIY construction, providing extraordinary results in terms of cost, time and quality. We achieve the volume in the factories by using the same elements in many projects by different owners; therefore, it is not necessary to always use them in large projects, they can also be used in small projects.

In our country, the technology is not yet well developed

Mexico is a leading country in Latin America in terms of prefabrication of concrete structures. The important companies that develop and produce with this technology have been associated for more than 50 years in a national association that brings them together to seek greater competitiveness and innovation. Mexico is an example for prefabrication for many countries with important seismic codes, such as the US and Japan, bearing witness to satisfactory results on the world stage.

In the second part of this article, we will talk about all the advantages that precast concrete construction systems offer and that demonstrate why it is a truly disruptive industry, raising the change toward which the construction industry must go, especially in emerging economies like Mexico.