While a new dorm or learning space might be needed or desirable on campus, facing down the associated headaches of time, mess, and expense can overshadow the benefits the finished project might bring.
Modular construction is an alternative delivery method that can tame some of those issues. Unfortunately, the word modular sends people back to the drafty trailers they remember from elementary school.
“Modular can be concrete and steel,” says Jim Snyder, director of operations for Warrior Group Construction. “It doesn’t have to look like an 8th-grade science class.”
“They aren’t the trailer park or doublewides that come to mind when you think of modular,” agrees David Rabold, capital projects manager at Muhlenberg College (Pa.), where multiple dorms have been constructed using the off-site construction method.
“The myths of modular construction are from years ago when it was all wooden boxes,” says Dan Harrigan, principal at Spillman Farmer Architects. “They would warp and not line up.” His firm has worked on several projects at Muhlenberg and other colleges.
When compared to traditional building methods, modular construction—also known as off-site construction, prefabricated construction, and pre-manufacturing—can save time, reduce disruption to campus, and even save money. As construction projects return to campus with the economic recovery, this method deserves a second look.
Time Is of the Essence
Old habits die hard. People aren’t comfortable with modular construction, despite the potential efficiencies, because they aren’t familiar with it, says John Dolan, a project executive with the construction firm Skanska.
Permanent modular construction is a far cry from a temporary modular building that can be hauled away when no longer needed, says Snyder. The main difference between a modular building and a traditional “stick build” structure is in method of construction.
“In modular, up to 90 percent of the building is completed
in a factory and delivered to the site,” explains Glenn Cort, executive vice president of Triumph Modular. This process compresses the project timeline because all of the “major tasks happen simultaneously. While people are on site doing work, the building
is being constructed in a factory.”
When educating people about the advantages of modular, experts usually start with the time advantage. Since the building elements are constructed in a temperature-controlled factory and delivered complete to the site, working around the weather is less of an issue with a modular project.
Time was a critical component when Muhlenberg leaders decided in 2006 to replace an older dorm with new apartment-style housing, remembers Rabold. “We took over the site in May  and had the first RA living in a building in August.”
The success and popularity of The Village gave campus leaders the confidence to use modular for an addition on their 150-year-old East Hall. While Rabold says it’s a “gorgeous” building with fireplaces in each room and other amenities that would have been expected back in the day, it doesn’t fulfill modern expectations. The addition of social spaces will reduce available beds, which is in conflict with their housing policy and the fact that 90 percent of students live on campus.
“We’re building an addition that will be modular. It will be 36 beds. The cost will be comparable to a new dorm, but we are saving time,” he explains. The new building is expected to be ready for RAs and support staff to move in the weekend of August 12.
“On June 1, we have to dig a hole and build the foundation to be ready to receive the modules for June 12. About four days later, we’ll have a building,” Rabold shares. The schedule for The Village was so precise, they knew which day each of the 20 modules was being completed.
Time was also a factor when the University of Saint Francis (Ind.) built new apartment-style housing in 2004. “We only had from when students left in the summer to when they returned to campus,” recalls Tom Buuck, director of operations. Padua Hall broke ground in February that year.
With the majority of the construction with modular taking place off-site, the delivery method means less disruption to campus than traditional construction.
“What wows people about pre-manufactured is that you go from a blank slate to a finished project very quickly,” says Dolan. It also reduces the chances people will improvise to get the project done, which ensures consistent quality.
The boxes, as the individual elements are called, are usually constructed on an assembly line, with cranes moving them down the line. “People do the flooring, windows, plumbing. All the things you expect to see in a permanent facility are built in a factory,” explains Snyder. “But you can stack a box on top of a box, and as long as it was well thought out you can see a space that is as open as a traditional building.” Then, at the job site, you just need a crane to put all the boxes together.
Reducing disruptions was a concern with the renovations to East Hall, Rabold says. “If we did it stick-build, on-site, we would have built during the year. It’s in one of the open legs of a quad and would have disrupted several hundred students year round. We would have had to put time restrictions on the contractors, not during exams, etc. It wouldn’t have worked.”
During the winter break, the groundwork for electric and water was done. By the time students returned to campus, the holes were filled so they never knew it happened, he says. The next round of activity won’t happen until after graduation in May.
“Usually, projects go on for a year and the campus doesn’t look good during tours,” points out Harrigan. “Modular usually has less of an impact, maybe just two or three months.”
But just because arrangements can be made to avoid disturbing students, don’t expect it to be mess-free. “You still have to build a foundation. You still have to put on a roof and a wrap-around,” cautions Rex Bercot, building superintendent at the University of Saint Francis. After the boxes for Padua Hall were installed, a brick facing and balconies were added on-site. “If you went by the building, you couldn’t tell it was a modular building. I’d bet $100 that you couldn’t tell.”
However, the Padua Hall project resulted in less damage to the earth when compared to a traditional project, Buuck says. “If you have construction during the school year, you have to put up fences and make sure students don’t go poking around. When the modular units came in, the doors were already locked.”
Stylish and Green
Careful planning can result in spacious and gracious modular buildings. “We can deliver large, complex buildings,” assures Cort.
Modular does have to be on the table at the very beginning of the design process, because there are restrictions related to shipping a box on the highways, says Harrigan. “You have to know how the units will be broken down and where the meet lines will be.”
While minor adjustments were made to the proposed addition to East Hall to accommodate the modular method, the end result meshes with the existing 150-year-old structure, says Rabold. “We’re getting a tower to complement the existing towers, there is an elevator, and we have roll-in showers.”
“You hear that ceiling heights are an issue because they get a ceiling and floor in one space, but the existing building has low ceilings and we’re within inches of matching that,” he adds.
Students who initially signed up to live at The Village were taking a risk because they would be moving in sight unseen, but by the second year, the complex was in high demand. “I’m hoping that East Hall will be the same. I want to bring the original hall to its old grandeur,” he says.
Modular picks up savings from economies of scale and repeatable space. “You don’t want the dorms to all look the same but you can make them similar,” says Dolan. Floor plans and positioning of doors and windows can be the same, with differentiation coming from paint and other decorations, he suggests. As with a traditional construction project, you have to pay attention to the details. Bercot says the amenities in Padua Hall are all nice, but they ended up swapping out the standard issue doors. “There are things we wish we did differently. And you get that on any project,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s stick built from the ground up. You always wish you had done something differently.”
Grand spaces, such as two-story foyers, can be accomplished by either combining a box without a ceiling with one without a floor or by stick building the foyer and using modular for the remainder of the building.
Don’t worry about having to sacrifice environmental goals to go modular, either. Snyder says they’ve built projects to both LEED Silver and Gold. “We eliminate a lot of waste that would end up in landfills,” Cort says.
Another green aspect is the smaller footprint on-site because there is no need for temporary parking lots and other support areas, says Dolan. With modular, there are also going to be fewer delivery trucks coming to campus throughout the project, experts note.
Costs: A Deeper Look
In both traditional construction and modular, careful planning is the best way to achieve cost efficiencies. “We recommend the owner get modular [experts] involved at the very beginning,” says Snyder. “You won’t realize the savings if you drop us into the middle.” As Cort notes, “When you do something 46 percent faster there are some savings, [but] you have to coordinate the architect and contractors early on.
Regarding delivery, the boxes must be strong enough to be picked up by a crane and transported to their destination. “If it shakes apart, you’ve defeated the point of doing modular,” points out Snyder. This makes them sturdier in the long run, but can add expense, meaning modular might not be the most cost-effective road for a small project. However, it is a good option for controlled growth, says Snyder. You can design a large building, but start out with a smaller section and add on as needed.
Another point of potential loss is changing to modular midstream. Dolan shares that Skanska is working on a commercial apartment complex in Brooklyn that did not start out modular. The drawings had to be redone to adapt it. However, the project will still end up costing 12 percent less than conventional construction. “It was a combination of reduced overall project schedule and efficiencies in the factory,” he explains.
Buuck says there were not a lot of up-front costs associated with Padua Hall because the project team was able to select from standard floor plans. The project was around 10 to 20 percent less in construction costs. “It always appeals to us when we’re saving a few dollars,” he says.
When Muhlenberg built The Village, Harrigan says they realized savings in architectural fees because of the compressed schedule, and also because they didn’t have to house and transport displaced students.
“We’ve used modular for time savings more than anything, but I don’t think we’ve paid a cost penalty,” says Rabold. “We make very nice facilities; we fit in the national average for what we spend per bed.” When compared to a traditional building project, he says they had more trouble with the stick build laundry building that went along with The Village than they did with the modular project.
“We look at them as forever buildings,” Rabold concludes. “we don’t want these to be done again.”