By James B. Guthrie, AIA
The city of Wolverhampton, England , enters the architectural history books this month as residents move into Victoria Hall, their brand new high-rise modular apartment building. At 25 stories, Victoria Hall is the world’s tallest building built with off-site construction methods.
A mixed-used apartment complex for students at the University of Wolverhampton , Victoria Hall consists of four buildings, three of which have just been completed, and is a substantial architectural solution to overcrowding and tight building sites in this historic English town, about 110 miles northwest of London. The tallest building of the group is of particular note because, at 25 stories, it now holds the record for overall height and number of stories in a building constructed principally off-site. The ground floor is site-built, but the other 24 stories are assembled from 383 individual modules built several hundred miles away across land and sea in Cork, Ireland.
Victoria Hall is a logical response to growing pressures on student housing in the UK. As in the U.S., the UK is experiencing rapid growth in its university population and there is diminishing funding for school infrastructure. Additionally, many UK universities are located in urban areas with significant site constraints. Because university-sponsored housing is lagging, private developers have emerged to fill the student housing gap, and London-based Victoria Hall Ltd is one such company. Having built 10 student housing projects in the last 14 years, they are one of Britain’s prominent private student housing developers. Working for a number of years with O’Connell East Architects  of Manchester, and prior to this project, Victoria Hall Ltd.  had developed a reputation for delivering high-quality projects through traditional methods of construction. When the University of Wolverhampton found itself behind in its ability to provide accommodations for its growing student population, Victoria Hall Ltd. offered to provide a housing solution and a landmark architectural statement. Because the need was urgent, they sought an aggressive building program to complete the project.
Challenged with the multiple pressures of speed, quality, and scale, the project team investigated alternative methods of project delivery. Vision Modular Structures , a division of The Fleming Group, entered the picture. The Flemming Group is a general contractor, Vision is their modular building division. Fleming/Vision, which has completed several other modular projects in their native Ireland, was contracted to build both the modules and the site-built components. Fleming also provided general construction management.
“We had a well developed building program and final design in hand when Fleming came on board.” said Gary East, RIBA, principle at O’Connell East Architects. “We worked very closely with the engineers at Vision Modular to accomplish the use of Vision technology with minimal alteration to our design. Because the developer, university and community all wanted a strong design statement, the building system had to conform to the design objectives, not the other way around.”
The Vision factory in Cork, Ireland, starting modular production just as initial site work was beginning back in England in July 2008. Site piles were driven and capped, and above those a ground floor with long spans for street level uses and student common areas was built of poured-in-place concrete. The ground floor acts as an architectural plinth as well as a structural transfer beam for the smaller span modular structures above.
The building’s cores, which house the central circulation, centralized utilities, fire stairs, and elevators, are site built from slip-formed concrete.
As for the modules, each has its own structural steel frame designed to carry the loads of the modules above it. The modules also include concrete floors, drywall walls and ceilings, and a fire-rated envelope. Prior to shipping, all modules are pre-fitted with plumbing, fixtures, finishes, cabinets, and even furnishings (multiple modules are used to complete each student suite). Once completed, the individual modules made their way from Cork by boat and truck to Wolverhampton.
The modules weigh 21 to 29 tons and are lifted into place by crane. Individual modules are stacked on top of the prior story and attached to the core. Once a module has been set in its final location the frames are spot welded to create a unified structural mosaic.
On the inside, a module’s preinstalled electrical and plumbing components are simply joined to the main runs. The modules are then sealed and finished at their mate lines. Outside, a rainscreen façade is applied over factory-installed waterproofing. After the modules are set, the final façade work is applied using a lightweight façade scaffolding system.
Architect Gary East and his team estimated the project would have taken at least 24 months using traditional site-built methods, but modular construction enabled them to top out all three buildings in nine months—well ahead of schedule, Total project completion is set before students arrive for their fall classes this year, fully 10 months ahead of site-built alternatives.
Considering that the demands of this project in general were substantial and that this project is the first time many on the project team had worked with modular methods, it is interesting to know that when asked if they would do it again, the common response is “absolutely”.
“In spite of this being a new method for most team members, the project went smoothly, quickly, stayed on budget, maintained our quality objectives and architectural integrity, and will actually be done ahead of our originally aggressive schedule, ” says Jenny Hayes, RIBA, O’Connell East’s project architect on Victoria Hall.
It is hard to argue with that.
About the author
James B. Guthrie, AIA is an architect and modular builder. He is President of Miletus Group, Inc.  a Rochester, Ind., modular design build firm, and owner of a modular factory. A strong advocate for the use of modular methods in architectural projects in the US, Mr. Guthrie visited Victoria Hall in May 2009 as part of his research for a book he is currently working on about modular architecture.