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Is this Modular Construction’s Breakout Moment?
Published Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Pagliuca Life Lab at Harvard University. Courtesy of Devine Millimet.

What if you had to assemble a car after purchasing it? Imagine your new purchase strewn across the driveway in 10,000 pieces. Absurd, right? For most products, we take for granted that the product will be built offsite. However, when it comes to buildings, most construction still happens piece-by-piece onsite. Many developers and architects, though, are taking a fresh look at modular construction, as it can bring the quality control, safety and efficiency of offsite construction to the building industry while still meeting the standards of architects and owners.  

Modular construction is an approach where 60 to 80 percent of the construction is completed offsite in the controlled environment of a factory. Pieces are designed and built in a Lego-like fashion, transported from the factory and ready to assemble on site.

Prefab is generating a lot of buzz. Shows such as HGTV’s “Tiny House” and A&E’s “Prefabulous” have increased audience’s awareness of alternative ways to build. In turn, the publicity has driven greater acceptance of modular construction by architects, owners and contractors who are motivated by costs, shorter schedules, improved safety, fewer change-orders, more efficient use of materials and less disruption.  

Watching the construction of a modular building is startling. A commuter could leave for work in the morning, pass an empty lot en route and discover a three-story building there on his return home.

Due to the site work and foundation being prepared concurrently with factory production of the building, it is typical to achieve 40 percent acceleration when compared to traditional construction schedules.

When proper focus is placed in the design phase of the project, it is not uncommon to cut in half the delivery time compared to traditional “design-bid-build”  projects.   

Creating a building requires a range of skilled labor, from project management, quality control and engineering to applying sheetrock, installing windows and tile work. It’s complex and difficult to oversee in the field, as many projects are happening simultaneously and susceptible to varying weather conditions from snow to heat to high winds.

These uncontrollable conditions adversely impact the workers, site safety and the integrity of materials, not to mention the cost.  Much of this work can be done more efficiently in a specialized factory, eliminating weather exposure, site safety issues and preserving the integrity of materials. By working inside, project waste can be better managed and reduced, labor pools remain intact and consistent.

Why Hasn’t Modular Taken Off?
The explanation may be simple: perception. Before the current wave of positive attention, the only exposure that most people had to modular construction was at school where pre-fabricated buildings were used either during construction or during a temporary surge in enrollment. Economy and speed were the priority rather than aesthetics and advanced materials and designs featured in today’s modular construction. Modular construction’s lower-quality past has caused its present day public relations challenge.    

Several recent projects highlight the industry’s advances, including the Pagliuca Life Lab at Harvard University, the Koch Childcare Center at MIT and the Rand at Porter condominiums, all in Cambridge, Mass., as well as the EMD Serono Billerica corporate campus expansion in Billerica, Mass.

Modular construction is also increasingly being used by the hotel industry. According to Hotel News Now, Hilton has made a commitment to modular for many new properties. It’s an example of how blue chip companies are embracing modular to provide an experience consistent with their brands.  

With such projects helping to illustrate the advantages and acceptance of high-end offsite construction, this could indeed be modular construction’s breakout moment.

Glenn Cort is executive vice president of Triumph Modular in Littleton, Mass. Matt Johnson is chair of the Construction Practice Group at Devine Millimet in Manchester. For more information, visit triumphmodular.com and devinemillimet.com.

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