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Industrialized Construction Innovation

NREL leverages the benefits of industrialized construction—higher-quality buildings, faster construction timelines, improved productivity, increased technology integration, and labor cost savings—to enable cost-effective strategies for energy efficiency, integrated grid-interactive controls, and renewables in retrofit and new construction projects.

There is a growing need globally to build and upgrade the building stock to be affordable, energy-efficient, and resilient. The United States can emerge as an international leader in this space through research and development (R&D).

NREL's Industrialized Construction Innovation research area focuses on R&D of industrialized energy efficiency retrofits and new construction at scale. The scope of work includes whole-building level as well as subassemblies of components, pods, panels, and volumetric modules. NREL researchers draw synergies between capabilities such as design for manufacturing and assembly, process optimization, construction and retrofit technology, digitization, and data analytics to influence the improvement and production of buildings to increase performance, enhance energy efficiency, and reduce embodied carbon.

NREL seeks interest from the building retrofit and new construction sectors to collaborate on process and product innovation through optimized improvements in industrialized construction.

View the ICI factsheet.

Integrated Design for Manufacturing and Assembly infographic showing process innovation, optimized improvements, and product innovation is equal to better product and better process.

Industrialized Construction Innovation aims to modernize the U.S. built environment with improved energy efficiency and innovative grid interactivity by developing the following novel capabilities:

  • Design for manufacturing and assembly of energy efficiency strategies: To perform subassembly design that optimizes construction and energy efficiency workforce productivity and to develop a standardized catalog of subassemblies of building components, pods, panels, and volumetric modules.

  • Improve processes by prototyping in real-world and immersive environments: To assemble and integrate energy efficiency strategies on real-world production lines and in virtual reality using noninvasive construction and retrofit technologies tied to discrete event simulation modeling.

  • Streamline workflows through integrated building product design to advanced manufacturing and life cycle assessment tools: To introduce digitization and automation as well as reduce process waste and embodied environmental impact considerations during construction.

  • Perform advanced time and motion studies to optimize process efficiency: To perform machine learning-based data analytics on collected real-world data, to develop productivity modeling from design through manufacturing, and to create digital twins of processes that evaluate proposed improvements.

Projects

The Industrialized Construction Innovation research area has a growing portfolio of projects.

Integrating Energy Efficiency in Permanent Modular Construction

In this project, NREL works to achieve zero energy ready buildings through cost-effective industrialized construction methods with U.S. modular construction factories. This three-year project (2018–2021) is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Building Technologies Office. The project addresses barriers to whole-building system integration, such as lack of industrialized construction assessment framework following design for manufacturing and assembly criteria; problematic on-site installation, commissioning, and configuration of controls; poor installation quality of thermal and air barriers; lack of modular heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems and domestic hot water; and lack of cost-effective integration for grid-friendly design and emerging technologies.

More details can be found in the 2021 ASHRAE Virtual Design and Construction Conference presentation Integrated Mechanical Pods.

A graphic of an apartment building with text that reads Integrated Mechanical Pods (factory-installed, in-unit), Quick-connect Ducts in Prefab Soffits and Drop Ceilings, Outdoor units inside screen box with balcony access, Prefab mep racks, aerosol-based envelope sealing, smart apartment controls platform, off-site framing with insulated truss studs (ITSs), and Factory-Installed solar systems (FISS).
NREL's Ideal DfMA solution demonstrating integration of a wide range of energy efficiency strategies and technologies in one dwelling unit (studio apartment) of a modular multi-family building.

This project involves streamlining analyses from the building information model, building energy model, discrete event simulation model, and life cycle assessment into a digital twin called Factory Information Model. The Factory Information Model, developed in partnership with academic experts, enables the modular construction factory partners to make more informed decisions for cost-effective integration of energy efficiency strategies, integrated grid-interactive controls, and renewables into their built products. Identified energy efficiency strategies include framing with thermally broken studs and panels, aerosol-based envelope sealing, integrated mechanical pods, and a smart apartment controls platform.

More details can be found in the 2020 Autodesk University Conference presentation Process-Based Digital Twin for Industrialized Construction Efficiencies.

Impact

As of December 2020, more details on the project, early wins, and its potential impact have been documented in the overview deck. Learning outcomes and future work have been documented in 2020 ACEEE Summer Study paper titled Integrating Energy Efficiency Strategies with Industrialized Construction for a Clean Energy Future.

Partners

Oregon State University
Momentum Innovation Group
Volumetric Building Companies
Factory_OS

FullStack Modular
Skender
Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Advanced Building Construction Initiative

The following projects funded under the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Building Construction (ABC) Initiative fall under the Industrialized Construction Innovation research area:

Retrofit panel (NREL PI: Lena Burkett)

Simple Panels (NREL PI: Chioke Harris)

New Iglu™ (NREL PI: Ryan Tinsley)

Membrane Dehumidification (NREL PI: Eric Kozubal)

Zero Energy Modular Strategy (NREL PI: Stacey Rothgeb)

Chicago Stock Analysis (NREL PI: Janet Reyna)

ABC Initiative R&D (NREL PI: Stacey Rothgeb)

Ice Juneau (NREL PI: Vanessa Stevens).

Impact

In 2020, the Building Technologies Office awarded $26.3 million to 40 competitively selected projects, led by 29 organizations, to pursue innovations that can advance the goals of its Advanced Building Construction with Energy-Efficient Technologies and Practices Funding Opportunity.

Partners

See the list of projects under the ABC Initiative with their respective lead organizations and partners.

A man standing behind wires.
The ABC Initiative invests in new technologies that enable high building performance, can be deployed quickly with minimal on-site construction time, and are affordable and appealing to building owners, investors, and occupants.

Wells Fargo IN2

The Wells Fargo Foundation supports collaboration between NREL researchers and early-stage startup companies through the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) program. Within the Industrialized Construction Innovation research area, NREL is working with three startup companies: Blokable Inc., Pre Framing Corp., and STRATIS IoT. These select startups are focused on affordable housing and building efficiency. Across these three projects, NREL is involved with developing means, methods, and tools for construction process innovation and grid interactivity.

Within this research area, additional projects are underway covering high-impact focus areas such as mass production and delivery of low-embodied high-performance buildings with cross-laminated timber, reducing assembly and installation soft costs during in-factory integration of solar photovoltaics and in-apartment battery/energy storage, pilot demonstration of building-integrated photovoltaics replacing typical facade rainscreen of modular apartment units, and developing a novel virtual reality digital twins framework to demonstrated how immersive environments of industrialized construction can be leveraged to train the energy efficiency workforce of the future.

Impact

While having several focus areas, the Wells Fargo IN2 program invests in startup companies with products to address affordable housing and buildings energy efficiency challenges. These startup companies create products with tremendous potential to positively impact energy use and the environment.

Partners

Blokable Inc.
Pre-Framing Corp.
STRATIS IoT

Blok unit hoisted into position after transported to Vehicle Testing Integration Facility.
A prototype of a prefabricated housing unit from Blokable Inc.—called a Blok—transported to NREL, where it will undergo testing as part of the Wells Fargo IN2 program. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL 

Contact

Shanti Pless

Senior Energy Efficiency Researcher

Shanti.Pless@nrel.gov
303-384-6365