Modular Building Practices Are Changing the Construction Industry

“Speed is one of the biggest reasons for growth on the commercial side,” Semler says. “Projects get done faster because it takes about a third less time because construction happens simultaneously—it’s happening in a factory simultaneously with the site preparation, so immediately upon a foundation being in place, modules can be scheduled to be there and start being placed.”

Offsite construction improves efficiency and saves valuable time in scheduling.

Offsite construction improves efficiency and saves valuable time in scheduling.

Bolos adds offsite construction improves efficiency and saves valuable time in scheduling, “and time equates to money to the building owners and the developers.”

Although some may question whether modular construction will threaten the job market, Hardiman suggests the opposite is true. “Modular factories offer a more stable, less seasonal work environment, which is also much safer,” he says. “The fact that entire building projects can be 50 to 90 percent completed in a factory-controlled setting—including framing, electrical, plumbing, drywall, painting—is very appealing to general contractors struggling to find consistent subs.”

Existing Building Challenges and Opportunities

The business case for offsite building is evident for new-construction projects. Existing buildings, on the other hand, face limitations but there are ample opportunities to capitalize on modular construction for retrofits, as well.

Perhaps the most obvious scenario is with additions and expansions that build off a structure outward or upward with additional floors. Hardiman says MBI has seen many successful examples of modular additions to existing buildings, including schools, health-care facilities and office complexes. “Of course, it’s best when the original building is designed and constructed with the idea of future expansion in mind,” he points out.

Semler suggests tying in modular building pods to an existing structure is simply a matter of keeping measurements in mind, noting the differences in construction between them. For example, he points out modules are self-contained units with their own structural integrity, each with their own ceilings and floors, so floor transitions are particularly important. “Other than that, I really don’t see any issues—it’s just designing it and stacking. It’s literally like stacking Legos,” he says.

Another attractive option for retrofitting is installing prefabricated bathroom pods into existing buildings or prefabricated, insulated wall panels or even elevator shafts that attach to a building’s fac?ade, according to Hardiman. “I could see those [examples] really being more appropriate for more of a retrofit situation than maybe a full 3-D module,” he says.

For large companies, like Katerra’s Renovation division, the opportunity for retrofitting isn’t necessarily in structural modifications but in materials for interiors. Leveraging its size and purchasing power in the modular construction market, the company wants to be the largest turnkey provider of material sourcing for renovation projects, according to Bolos. Whether it’s lighting, plumbing, countertops, cabinets, hardware, doors or flooring, Bolos says Katerra is able to negotiate deals with factories—or in some cases purchase the manufacturing facilities—to bring products to projects at a much lower price point while ensuring high-quality materials.

Katerra offers a prefabricated closet program for existing apartments and condo buildings.

Katerra offers a prefabricated closet program for existing apartments and condo buildings. PHOTO: Katerra

“Right now, the biggest bang for the buck that I think we’re driving beyond the price is that we are out there soliciting creative and innovative items and products that haven’t even reached the marketplace yet,” Bolos says. “Because we’re so large, reaching out to vendors and providers
that … now we’re bringing things to the market that most of the property owners haven’t even seen yet. That’s on the development side, new construction, as well as renovation.”

That being said, existing structures do restrict what can be done with offsite construction. For example, can modules 12 feet by 40 feet or longer be brought into an existing building? “I think for retrofitting, it would certainly be a case-by-case determination. But if there is a desire to minimize onsite disturbances or a need for quicker construction completion, modular may make a great deal of sense,” Hardiman says.

According to Semler, another big challenge is a perceived limitation in design. He says not many architects are familiar with modular construction practices yet, and it’s not being taught in schools so construction professionals don’t know how to design buildings and products that optimize the use of modules into the process. “As this is gaining more popularity, people are learning, but it’s kind of an on-the-job training process,” Semler explains. As a result, adoption among architects and building owners is slow. “If project owners don’t know about it, it’s foreign and you get trapped in the same cycle. You do what you know, not what possibilities are,” he adds.

Regardless of whether modular construction seems viable at this point, change is coming to the industry—and those that want to remain competitive ought to give this trend another look. As Bolos concludes: “Anyone who’s an owner or developer that’s not taking a hard look at modular development being built in factories versus site build—I don’t want to say that they’re ignorant—but how could you not take a look at this concept and recognize [its value] compared to what you’re currently doing?”

PHOTOS: Energiesprong unless otherwised noted

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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