Key Considerations for Modular Buildings

Modular buildings are not a new concept. Dating back as early as the mid-1950s with modular and mail-order homes, the idea that modular construction will revolutionize the building industry has been a consistent concept over the past few decades. A new trend of corporations and industries pushing the benefits of modular buildings, however, has resulted in a boom of marketing, production and knowledge of the modular process in recent years. As the trend continues to gain traction, it is important to identify all factors of a project before adopting the modular process. Through our experience, we have identified core considerations to evaluate if modular is the right fit for a project.

Perhaps the largest incentive to utilize modular construction is the potential impact on project timeline. Leveraging off-site factory-built construction, modular plants can produce multiple units per day and reduce construction time compared to on-site construction processes. Repetition of project design within hotel and multi-family projects lends itself well to efficient modular production schedules. Within these project typologies, factories can integrate MEP systems, fire suppression systems, interior finishes, appliances and fixtures into a sealed and plug-and-play unit. This ability to complete all work within module rooms in off-site factories reduces on-site construction demand and allows site preparation and foundation work to occur congruently with module construction. Sealed guestrooms ensure a diminished potential for damage or debris prior to project opening, offering additional security and assurance. The resulting time saving in a speed to market saves roughly 20% of building construction time frames. Additional clarification with lenders, however, is necessary to address high up-front costs opposed to the traditional financing models with on-site construction.

The increased speed to market may assist in reducing any potential bridge funding necessary for construction. While this can lead to reduced overall cost for project development, there is typically not a savings in labor, construction cost or design fees for a modular building. Reduced construction time frames offer the incentive of having a high-quality, efficient project with limited exposure to risk and financing concerns. High-cost labor markets such as California or Seattle, however, offer the additional advantage of capitalizing on off-site factory-built construction to avoid high-priced local market labor.

While modular construction often results in faster speed to market, the ambiguity and lack of knowledge surrounding the modular process can create permitting concerns and hardship for stakeholders. It is critical that designers, contractors and jurisdictions understand their scope for the project from the inception of schematic design. Change orders, permit comments and stakeholder delays can wreak
havoc on the success of a project without definitive scope clarification from an integrated team.

Defining the authorities having jurisdiction is one of the most important items to clarify at the beginning of a modular project. As the jurisdiction of review and scope to approve varies by state, estimating entitlement and building permit review schedules can become difficult, if not impossible, to accurately forecast without clarifying and ensuring all parties understand the modular process. Continued communication and coordination through the permitting process is critical to ensure schedules and timelines are met. Having these upfront conversations and continued coordination with jurisdictions, lenders, contractors and designers offers the best opportunity for project success and savings.

Modular construction offers unique advantages to improve the quality of the overall product compared to projects constructed fully on-site. With a higher level of control, off-site factories can optimize tools, develop jigs and train to produce a high-quality, efficient end product. Protection from weather throughout construction is another advantage due to the ability to reduce mold and water damage potential prior to dry-in.

While the interior of the modules can offer heightened quality, the overall quality of the building is dependent upon the placement, or set, of the modules. If not properly set, the plum and shim of modules can produce difficult transitions on either the interior or exterior of the building. While set crews having previously completed modular projects have the experience and expertise to address these potential issues, the overall quality of modular projects is dependent upon all parties and stakeholders’ coordination, collaboration, and expertise.

Design Expectations
Concerns over the ability of modular projects to achieve high-end design are warranted, however, the ability to achieve this relies upon understanding cost implications and structural coordination of features such as cantilevers, offsets, slanted members and exterior finishes; all of which can be accomplished in modular design. In other words, modular construction does not always result in purely rectangular stacked buildings. Advances in the ability to develop façade push/pull, roof projections and building design elements are limited only to the coordination and collaboration of designers and contractors throughout the building design and construction process.

Site Considerations / Location
The logistics of construction play a larger role in modular projects than may seem to be apparent. How and where modules are constructed is critical to the successful delivery and installation of modular units. Those constructed of wood are typically limited to a delivery radius from the production plant, whereas steel modules have greater travel and transportation abilities – including internationally. Modules can be delivered in phases or in bulk, thus the need to evaluate feasibility for storage of modules and crane placement factor into logistics and coordination with local municipalities. Delivery of modules in phases offers enhanced protection for vandalism and theft by limiting on-site construction materials and the amount of stored modules prior to installation. Where bulk module delivery is selected, however, additional security and land for module storage must be accounted for and secured.

There are always factors to weigh and balance when evaluating project feasibility. With modular construction, however, there seem to be additional factors contributing to potential project success or hardship. When developed in a suitable market with the help of a collaborative team, modular projects can produce cost-efficient project solutions and deliver high-end design. As this trend continues to gain popularity, adoption and demand, the experience levels of manufacturers, designers and clients will only enable projects to be delivered with increased quality and clarity.

About the authors:

Culin Thompson, Assoc. AIA, APA, LEED Green Assoc., graduated from the University of Kansas with both Master of Architecture and Master of Urban Planning degrees. Culin’s experience in hospitality, housing, retail market analysis and urban planning brings a unique perspective to our hospitality team. Day to day, he designs for a range of hotel brands alongside the development of their entitlement packages. Email him.

Jacob Henley, AIA, LEED AP, graduated from Kansas State University with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Jacob has 10 years of professional experience and works on our internal hospitality studio. Jacob has worked with multiple hotel brands and franchisees on properties in markets across the U.S. Day to day, Jacob manages projects through all phases, from design development, through construction document production and construction administration. Email him.