Modular Construction: “Not there yet”

“There is only one way a modular project can go well and a million ways it can go wrong.”

By John E. McNellis, director at McNellis Partners, for WOLF STREET:

Pay close attention to the construction and it may occur to you that things have hardly changed since the construction of Ramses II. Yes, we have cranes, forklift trucks and electric saws, but a lot of construction still comes down to grueling labor: men digging ditches, pushing wheelbarrows, or hitting hammers. Combine this everyday observation with our clear need to disrupt and revolutionize every industry and your descendants are modular in construction.

What is modular construction? It is a construction method, not a building type. It is a matter of true rather than what. Rather than building a building on site, most modular structure is built off site. You assemble everything except the foundation of a project, the siding and the roof in a factory a thousand miles away. It’s building an apartment building in separate modules – imagine freight containers – in Boise, for example, transporting them to your location, placing them on your foundation, then screwing them together and then stacking them by floor. floor as a child’s building blocks.

When completed, the Modular Building Institute says, “Modular buildings are virtually indistinguishable from their on-site counterparts.”

Why are you doing this? Why fool with a construction method that has worked for the past five thousand years? Easily. Modular companies claim their approach can save up to 40 percent on construction costs and finish buildings 40 to 50 percent faster. How?

First, as with offshoring engineering work, there’s a big savings in wages: One can pay those Boise carpenters $ 18 an hour instead of $ 50 in the Bay Area.

Second, there are no rain delays in a factory; carpenters can drive nails 365 days a year; and third, you can factory finish your apartments while your local contractor does all your work on site: sorting, trenching, utilities, pouring the foundation, and so on. When the foundation is ready, so are your apartments; this should – in theory – save your build time for months.

Even if these cost savings prove elusive – one owner I spoke to said his modular project cost as much and lasted as long as traditional construction – there are a few compelling reasons for modular building. Shifting the construction process to where the professions can afford it is a small way to address the labor shortage in the construction industry. More importantly, it should be a major step forward for workers ‘health and safety: an assembly line apartment can be moved up and down to accommodate the carpenters’ aching backs; plumbers don’t have to crawl under the floor. And if you work on the factory floor, you don’t risk falling off a five-story project.

Modular construction has been around for decades. Why hasn’t it taken off?

“There is only one way a modular project can go right, and a million ways to go wrong,” said Ken Lowney, president and founder of Lowney Arch. After designing and supervising the construction of modular buildings with more than 5,000 units, Lowney has encountered most of the problems that can arise with the process: modules that fit like a poorly cut puzzle, modules that got damaged in transit, modules that were not good. weather resistant and thus ruined pending installation, and even the bankruptcy or failure of the modular construction companies themselves.

Lowney believes that modular is not the answer for every project, but just one of the tools owners and builders should consider. “It works best for projects with more than 100 units in flat, rectangular locations with ample land area. It can really shine with suburban hotels. If you build the same hotel room over and over again, modular efficiency can gain momentum. Marriott is a big believer. “

A major contractor said his team wasted too much time “pre-auditing” half a dozen modular projects that fell through, presumably because the cost savings were not there. “At the moment, modular is more in the forefront than in the lead.”

He pointed to a limiting factor to the process: without a “deposit box” within half a mile of the project to store the delivered modules pending installation, the concept just won’t work. This eliminates highly urbanized areas as modular candidates. He also pointed to the elephant in the factory of modular: the unions. Wherever unions can effectively veto the approval of a project – San Francisco – will only proceed modularly with their participation.

Another contractor was much more optimistic about the future of modular. “It’s not there yet, but it’s inevitable,” said Paul Cunha, a vice president at SD Deacon, a leading West Coast contractor. “The country needs to address both our labor shortages and housing.”

He compared the state of modular construction with the automotive industry. “Modular is well beyond the Model T stage, but nowhere near Tesla. It’s like car production in the 1940s, just after the war. But they will figure it out, they will make it work much more efficiently than building built on location. “

Let’s hope it comes soon in the interest of our housing shortage. By John E. McNellis, author of Real Estate Making: Starting Out As A Developer.

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Drone images of roofs with aluminum and steel clapboards. Get a bird’s eye view of the details of each installation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries

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