Late last month, Denver-based Prescient, a software and structural manufacturing start-up, completed a five-story, 88,655-square-foot building with 73 residential units. Normally, that wouldn’t be news. But this apartment building, in Denver’s popular Highland neighborhood, was framed in just six weeks, and is the first to be designed, engineered, and constructed using Prescient’s standardized light-gauge steel structural system, which the company’s two partners have been perfecting for the past six years.
“Our structures aren’t built at the jobsite; they’re installed. That’s a critical difference,” says John Vanker, Prescient’s CEO.
When he and his partner, Prescient’s COO Michael Lastowski, starting thinking about how they could improve the process of multifamily construction, their Eureka moment came when they concluded that standardization is the key to simplifying and compressing the time period from design to project completion.
The partners went with a cold-formed steel structural system that has a finite number of framing components: 19 panels, one truss configuration, and one column profile. Weight loads are transferred to a redundant column system, rather than from panel to panel vertically, thereby allowing for the use of light-gauge framing materials from the top to bottom floors.
What makes Prescient’s system unique, says Vanker, is its platform that integrates and coordinates every aspect of the project, from the design and the component engineering, to the creation of shop drawings and bills of materials. Each column and panel gets assigned an “address” on a construction grid that follows those components to the jobsite to make it easier for installers to follow the blueprint.
Vanker says construction efficiency becomes “more a matter of how we stage deliveries and lift them approximate to the grid addresses.”
Central to Prescient’s system is software that the company developed using the Autodesk Revit suite. That software gives the architect significantly more control over the project. It can resolve interior design and floor issues and then calculate the most efficient column and panel layouts. The software also “talks” with machines that engineer those components at Prescient’s plant in Denver.
Using this software, an architect can create a 3D virtual model that replicates exactly how the framing will look and lay out. “This is true BIM,” says Vanker, referring to the process of managing construction through digital representations of a building’s characteristics. Prescient debuted its software at the American Institute of Architects’ national convention in June, and now more than 100 architects are using it.
Vanker asserts that Prescient’s system is cost-competitive with wood-framed construction when all factors are taken into account. For example, because the materials Prescient uses are noncombustible, the developer and builder can save on insurance. And because the construction doesn’t require curing time, finishing crews can start working as soon as each floor is framed. Vanker says a crew of 22 installers on the Denver apartment building framed between 15,000 to 20,000 square feet per week. “The goal is to compress the entire construction schedule to 10 months,” he says, or three months faster than a similar-sized wood-framed structure would take.
Vanker also thinks that Prescient’s system gives developers more flexibility about how high to go. Most wood-framed builders are four stories over podium, and adding more floors would require switching to concrete construction, which often doesn’t pencil out financially. Prescient’s system, on the other hand, can support building up to 12 stories without increasing the per-floor cost structure.
“Our system allows the developer to look at sites differently,” says Vanker.
Right now, Prescient has patents pending on its framing system, and four patents on its software and components. It has developed a certified installer program so it can offer turnkey solutions to developers.
The company recently started its second building—a 61,500-square-foot structure at Denver’s University Station that will have 60 apartments when it’s completed this December. “We see growth opportunities all over the country,” says Vanker, pointing specifically to Portland, Ore.; North Carolina; and even Texas, home of the $5-per-lineal-foot wood framer.
By next summer, Prescient expects to open its second manufacturing plant in Houston. Vanker says he and Lastowski are looking to recapitalize the company so it can add at least three more plants, and possibly more, by 2016.
“Our three-year plan is to service NAFTA by strategically locating six additional plants across North America,” says Satyen Patel, Prescient’s chairman and managing partner of Kanusul Investments Pte. Ltd., a Singapore-based private equity fund that bankrolled Prescient at the start. Patel sees Prescient’s system moving into Canada and Mexico soon, and then other international markets thereafter.
John Caulfield is senior editor for MFE’s sister publication Builder.