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Modular Building: The Time and Cost Efficient Approach to Construction
By Joseph C. Lopardo
When evaluating building options, two of the most important considerations are cost and time. Many designers and builders are attracted to the accelerated construction method, as it not only yields a faster time to occupancy but also offers significant flexibility and financial benefits over the life of the building. Methods using modular components decrease the design and construction timeline by 30 to 50 percent, with fewer change orders, earlier occupancy and improved cash flow.
While accelerated construction techniques are not exactly new (according to Architectural Record, they have been used since the 1960s), modular building has become an increasingly popular method, with tremendous strides in construction technology and design innovation since the 1990s. Recent data from the Modular Building Institute (MBI) indicates the commercial modular industry is a $5 billion business annually, with a revenue growth rate of about 6 to 9 percent per year.
Modular construction technology builds technical innovation into an automated process that utilizes proven, standardized practices and process efficiencies. Results include greater reliability and higher quality than conventional site-built projects, particularly in areas where a skilled labor force is unavailable. As such, modular construction is not impacted by the skilled labor shortage that currently exists in the traditional construction industry.
Today’s Modular Construction
Modular construction differs from traditional building methods because specific production tasks occur simultaneously rather than in sequence, reducing the overall time to completion. Quality is never sacrificed – modular buildings meet all the same stringent building codes as site-built structures – but because site preparation, utility and foundation work occur simultaneously with off-site construction of the building, time to occupancy is dramatically reduced.
Gone are the days when modular building meant boring, boxy structures with little aesthetic appeal. The “cookie-cutter” mindset no longer applies. Because designers have the flexibility to use the most modern and highest quality materials, they do not have to compromise aesthetics for cost or time efficiencies.
Modular building applications span multiple commercial industry sectors, including construction, education, commercial/retail, healthcare and government. The design flexibility, cost effectiveness and accelerated delivery inherent in modular construction are highly compatible with client budget and scheduling parameters.
Benefits of Today’s Modular Construction
Architectural Excellence. Many modular structures have been recognized for their design excellence, as architects and designers often work closely with modular consultants and manufacturers to ensure optimal design outcomes. Permanent modular buildings can be built as single one-story buildings or multi-story structures suited to the client’s needs.
Whether the building is a medical center, school, or government facility, the design can be tailored to specific needs. The new or renovated structure can be designed to correspond with the surrounding environment and neighboring buildings. Exterior architectural finishes, such as brick, stucco and exposed aggregate architectural panels, can complement those of existing buildings. For the internal space, interior designers and architects collaborate with the client to develop the architectural touches, interior finishes and workflow environments aligned to each application.
Quality Control . Quality control is built into every step of the modular building process. Each component is inspected at every phase and approved by third-party inspectors, complying with precise specifications and codes. Streamlined scheduling, trade coordination and construction sequences optimize quality control on the jobsite.
Risk Mitigation. Because components are manufactured offsite, the onsite construction footprint is markedly smaller, operational disruption is minimized and safety is enhanced. Risks due to volatile weather, material shortages, theft and vandalism are mitigated, since modules and structural components are built in a controlled environment.
Adaptability and Scalability. Modular rooms and buildings are flexible and easily reconfigured to virtually “future-proof” facility investments, allowing adaptations to meet the ongoing needs of the facility. Their durable, secure and relocatable characteristics make them ideal for both temporary and permanent applications that will meet requirements well into the future.
The Cost-Effective Construction Method
Modular building is a remarkably cost-effective construction method. Concurrent construction allows work to begin sooner and in parallel with site preparation, which means cost savings at the outset. Modular structures require fewer calendar days to complete than conventionally constructed buildings. Precision fabrication allows design replication, so there is less material waste. Centralized factory manufacturing reduces energy consumption, building expenses and operating costs.
Quicker time to occupancy means greater productivity, income generation and improved cashflow for the end-user in any sector. For example, the sooner a medical center is completed, the sooner patients may receive health care; the quicker a school is opened, the faster students may begin learning.
When the building is completed more rapidly, billing may commence sooner. Another advantage of modular building is flexible financing unique to this construction method, including off-balance sheet treatment of building assets and management of facilities as an operating expense rather than within capital budgets.
Case Study: Trenton Police Department, New Jersey
The Trenton Police Department project demonstrates the versatility of modular building methods. The department needed an updated facility complete with the latest technology to replace its 60-year-old downtown centralized station. Population growth and local revitalization necessitated an expanded police presence throughout the area to ensure community security.
Within a short five-month time frame, two facilities in two wards of the city had to be constructed. The identical two-story, 7,800-plus square-foot buildings included sturdy steel and wood construction within the walls and roof systems, as well as dispatch centers, community meeting rooms, bullet-proof glass and walls, and elevators. Trenton chose modular construction for the job, with additional sites planned for the future.
Modular building methods accomplished the task efficiently. The buildings are highly energy efficient, with 6-inch stud walls with R-19 insulation, triple-glaze insulated windows and a multi-zone central gas HVAC system.
The design incorporated an office aesthetic commonly associated with upscale suburban police facilities. Constructed to support the revitalization, the buildings integrated architectural elements of restored row homes in the community, with brick and stucco accents, high peaked roofs and front entrance masonry columns. Curb appeal was enhanced with attractive landscaping.
Modular Building is an Attractive Option
Coming into the mainstream, modular building is proving to be an outstanding option, meeting the needs of multiple industries in diverse commercial and public sectors, including the construction, education, industrial, retail, healthcare and government markets.
About The Author:
As vice president of Williams Scotsman’s Modular Building Group, Joe Lopardo has profit and loss responsibility for the team, whose 100 employees manage and develop Williams Scotsman’s extensive permanent construction projects from concept to completion. Joe oversees both the national sales and operations for this group and is recognized as a champion for the modular construction industry’s expansion over the last decade. Joe is chairperson of the Modular Building Institute’s National Regulatory Councils, as well as an MBI board member. He frequently presents at MBI’s annual conventions and provides regular training seminars.