Reinventing Modular Construction

Long the province of education and temporary office buildings, modular construction is capturing an increasingly larger share of commercial, institutional, and government work.
August 11, 2010

After being awarded the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Salt Lake City organizers needed more than 800 support buildings for a wide variety of uses, including press and communications areas, seating, hospitality suites, ticket booths, hospitality areas for athletes, and traditional commercial offices. And they needed it all in less than two years.

By using six different modular building manufacturers, all the new buildings were factory-constructed and passed building inspection within a year of when the contract was awarded to Dulles, Va.-based Resun, Inc. They were shipped to 17 different Olympic venues ahead of schedule.

"The construction is done in a controlled environment, and the turnaround time is something that can't be met by traditional construction," said Greg Hanlon, Resun's COO.

Modular construction has been used for more than 30 years, mainly for construction sites and school districts that need buildings quickly. The Modular Building Institute—the Charlottesville, Va.-based trade group that represents manufacturers, sellers, and lessors of such buildings—says the industry generated revenues of $4.56 billion in 2003, the last full year for which figures are available. MBI believes only 5% of the construction market is served by the modular industry but all five primary markets—office, healthcare, education, retail, and construction-site—are growing.

By cutting build times, repurposing previously leased buildings, and creating factory-produced new buildings faster, modular is gaining ground for use in institutional, government, and commercial construction. New modular technology is also allowing the ready-made buildings to be adapted for more uses, particularly by the military.

Military embraces modularity

In 2004 GE Equipment Modular Space (partnered with Clark Construction's design/build division) completed a $72 million permanent barracks and offices project in Fort Stewart, Ga., that put 199 custom buildings onto 102 acres in just 142 days. The project gave new facilities to the U.S. Army's 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and now serves 900 soldiers and support personnel.

GE and Resun, two of the top three modular construction companies (Williams Scotsman is the other), are participating in many ongoing military projects, including the 10-year renovation of the Pentagon, the nation's largest low-rise office building. GE Modular Space provided a 25-unit modular building totaling 18,000 sf for the job, and Resun delivered flexible modular office units just days after the Pentagon was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Many modular offices will be moved throughout the Pentagon complex as the renovations progress.

"The military has embraced what they call 'the modularity concept,' " said Resun's Hanlon. "They recognize speed can be leveraged to help them more rapidly deploy and realign their bases. You can see that concept moving to other government agencies as a result."

The Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure 2005 (BRAC) is an attempt to realign the nation's bases to make the service branches faster and more efficient, according to the BRAC committee. Many of the bases that stay open are being modified faster as well, with modular construction. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is partnering with many modular companies on barracks and base realigment. These projects have spurred an expansion of the military and security markets for modular construction companies.

Tom Hardiman, executive director of the MBI, said he envisions more multiple manufacturer partnerships on military and facility projects because of demand. One of the most prominent new uses of the factory-built buildings is for highly secure, technologically advanced U.S. embassies, constructed stateside and then sent to turbulent areas overseas along with modules for barracks and command centers, according the MBI. For security reasons, the Building Teams have been asked not to comment publicly on embassy construction and delivery.

Healing in a hurry

Another market that is pushing modular building in new directions is healthcare. Williams Scotsman, GE, and Resun all have dedicated teams to quickly construct hospital and other healthcare units. The aging U.S. population continues to fuel a need for the faster, quicker construction, said MBI's Steven Williams.

For example, a 30-year-old hospital in Bucks County, Pa., was regularly reaching 100% bed capacity and needed to expand. In less than six months, GE built a 16,000-sf permanent structure out of modules that gave the St. Mary Medical Center an additional 40-bed wing to satisfy its growing patient census.

"The speedy completion of the new wing had an immediate impact on our patients," said Lisa Mallon, operations VP for the medical center.

Modular construction can provide an immediate impact that's of dire importance to healthcare facilities managers, patients, and professionals.

Resun's Medbuild group created a breast cancer outreach and screening center for San Francisco General Hospital. The follow-up and treatment center serves approximately 10,000 patients per year.

"The challenge was not the building itself, but rather the location of the building," Hanlon said. "Space was at a premium and the only space for this complex was near a parking lot that was going to be critical for patient access. We literally built the complex next door to the hospital without creating a disruption to the patients or the day-to-day running of the hospital."

Resun claims that standard construction methods would have not been able to finish the job by the deadline.Modular construction's traditional strength in the education sector is accelerating, thanks in part to growing enrollment in public schools, but also because school officials and facilities managers want more flexible spaces and team learning environments. According to MBI, more than 325,000 modular classrooms are currently in use by public school systems in the U.S.

Greater use in schools

Many school districts are turning to modular construction to get new classrooms built faster. Instead of building from the ground up, the San Diego Unified School System is moving a significant amount of its construction to modular to save time and money. The district has built new classroom additions or libraries on five campuses using modular, factory-built components, and has seven new campuses planned that will integrate modular with on-site construction. The modular units are expected to save the district up to $15.8 million versus conventional construction and halve the construction time on most of the projects

The teams factory-producing and installing modular units are under intense pressure to make more compact construction turnaround. With school officers demanding facilities faster—particularly in Florida where state law demands expansion to accommodate existing enrollment, and where hurricanes have created immediate need—even the compact construction time of modular construction is being put to the test.

"The demand to cut construction time is extreme," said Resun's Hanlon. He gives an example of a school complex for Charlotte County Public Schools in Punta Gorda, Fla., that consisted of 26 12-unit classrooms and kitchen facilities. Purchase orders were issued in November 2004 and by July 2005 the project was 99% completed with only two kitchen units left to be installed. "The students have been back in class and learning since early 2005," Hanlon said.

The clear span module

The demand for faster construction in healthcare, education, and other markets has led modular construction companies to develop the flexible wall solution known as "clear span" framing systems. The modules utilize any number of rectangular 50-, 60-, and 70-foot-long center span beams inserted between box-shaped end modules to create unobstructed floor space. Once installed, these rooms can include fixed or movable walls in any configuration. These buildings are being used as classrooms, courtrooms, church sanctuaries, cafeterias, and lodges. The modular construction companies like clear spans because they can be easily broken down and reused if lessees return them, yet they still provide the flexibility required for permanent projects.

But it's still modular

Critics have long said that modular buildings are too boxy, not flexible, not suited to long-term use, and ultimately unattractive.

However, with an average savings of 20% off construction costs, according to MBI, and with the speed and flexibility that so many developers and clients need, modular building could be gaining acceptance faster than anyone from the traditional design and construction side of the industry realizes.

"All our buildings pass the same building codes that anything built on site does," said MBI's Williams. "The only difference is we just build it in a factory."