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MODULAR CONSTRUCTION IS ‘NOT JUST THE FLAVOR DU JOUR’

With advantages in time, cost and quality, the building method is here to stay.

In St. Louis, Midas Hospitality LLC is developing a 153-room Elementby Westin hotel with SurePods, a provider of prefabricated bathrooms. The project is a good example of modular construction, a process in which entire units or portions of units are constructed at a facility offsite and then transported and put into place at the construction site.

Today, there’s a growing awareness and understanding of modular construction among developers, architects and builders. The main factors driving its implementation are cost savings, reduced construction time, quality control and sustainability.

By fabricating the components in a climate-controlled environment, the quality is better and there is less waste, says Domenic Cristofaro, architecture practice leader with national architecture and engineering _ rm HED. It is also faster because there is no concern for weather delays.

The reason Midas chose to use modular construction on the bathrooms of the Element hotel was because they are the smallest spaces that require the most tradesmen, according to Chris Shinkle, vice president of development and construction for Maryland Heights, Missouri-based Midas.

Cristofaro says modular construction will be a bigger part of the design and construction industry moving forward. “It’s not just the flavor du jour,” he says. “It’s here to stay.”

While modular construction is making its way into some healthcare and university projects, it is most conducive for developments with repeated features, such as apartment units or hotel rooms.

A piece of the pie

by using bathroom pods, the Element hotel will open two to four months earlier than it would have using

traditional construction methods, according to Taryn Bushman, marketing manager with Orlando-based SurePods. The company’s product comes with a one-year warranty on all parts and assembly, iscomputer designed and engineered, and also features mold and wear resistance.

Bushman says she’s seeing a major shift in the industry. “Up to three years ago, we experienced hurdles to acceptance in the construction industry, but the tables have turned.”

Midas believes knowledge is the key to acceptance. For the St. Louis project, Midas took city officials to the manufacturing facility so they could see firsthand the production technique. What’s great for local jurisdictions is that they receive their own benefit with quicker unit inspections. The prefabricated units are already inspected offsite before arriving at the construction site.

The only required inspection is the connection between utilities and the building itself, according to Ken Golovko, engineering practice leader with HED. “The inspector doesn’t have to check every outlet or HVAC,” he says. “Everything installed is already approved. It’s one more elementof speed to market.”

Modular construction will become even more prevalent as the industry gains further knowledge about the building method, says Shinkle. “We believe it’s not a fad; it’s a new way

to build,” says Shinkle. “We’re seeing labor shortages across the country. This isn’t a replacement for building trades, but it is thinking about doing construction in a different manner.”

Detroit embraces modular

In Detroit, a joint venture between Means Group Inc. and Koucar Management LLC is developing a sixstory, 158-room Cambria hotel using modular construction. For Joseph Caradonna, CEO of Troy, Michigan based Koucar, the biggest advantage of modular is time. “We were able to save over 11 months on our schedule with modular,” he says. “I have also noticed that the quality is higher, as we don’t have to work outside in the elements subject to rain and heat changes.”

So far, Caradonna says the project is on schedule to open in the third quarter of 2020. The developer hired

Champion Commercial Structures to construct the rooms using wood framing. Champion specializes in modular construction. According to the company’s website, modular uses the same quality materials as traditional site built structures, but up to 70 percent of the structure is built and inspected offsite so the amount of time required for onsite construction is dramatically reduced. Champion also worked on the Detroit multifamily project, The Corner. Developed by Larson Realty Group and completed this fall, the project wraps around the former Tiger Stadium, which opened in 1912 and was home to the Detroit Tigers for decades. In 2000, the Tigers moved into a new stadium, Comerica Park, and Tiger Stadium was eventually demolished. Champion manufactured modules in Liverpool, Pennsylvania, then transported and erected them onsite. Comprising 111 apartment units and 26,000 square feet of retail space, The Corner is the largest modular multifamily project in Detroit.

Being able to construct the modular units at the same time as the onsite construction of the first-level building podium was a time saver, according to Deena Fox, principal and directorof project management with Detroit based ROSSETTI, which served as the architect for the project.

With traditional construction methods, the life cycle of a project is more sequential with construction following the design process. But when utilizing modular, certain aspects of the project need to be coordinated with the modular manufacturer at an earlier stage in the project life cycle, says Fox. This does require some earlier decision making for building systems, floor plan configuration and interiors. Fox cites increasing awareness of modular construction as to why it’s becoming more prevalent in today’s marketplace. She also commends the developer’s willingness to research and understand the building method for the project’s success. “As more parties go through the experience and understand what’s involved, that in itself will lead to more deployment of modula for projects like this one,” she says.

In-house modular

Eyeing the advantages of modular building, general contractor Skender launched its own modular production facility on Chicago’s Southwest Side this past summer. “There are so many pain points in the marketplace that modular has a solution for,” says Michael Merle, vice president of the Chicago-based company.

Given the shortage of tradesmen and the increased costs associated with construction, Merle says that being able to fabricate a large portion of the project in a controlled factory setting helps alleviate some of the burden of onsite costs. The cost savings are anywhere from 5 to 20 percent, according to Merle. The wide range depends on the type of project, its complexity and the number of modular units. For instance, a higher volume of units can result in more cost savings in materials or labor. Beyond costs, constructing in the factory at the same time that site preparation is completed helps “shave off a substantial amount of time,” says Merle.

Skender’s first project utilizing the modular facility was three-flat buildings to serve as affordable housing. According to Merle, Skender has a large multifamily project in the final stage of development and the company is engaging heavily with the major hospitality brands but is not at liberty to disclose details of future projects just yet. “The hospitality segment has jumped in with both feet over the last four to five years and very much supports the modular initiative,” he says. The level of quality achieved during modular construction is an important advantage that may be overlooked by time and cost savings. Every module, whether the first floor or the 15th floor, is built in the same space with the same quality control.

In Merle’s eyes, the United States and North America are playing a bit of catch-up in terms of the amount of modular construction being utilized in comparison with Asia, Europe or Australia. But he says that education is the key to combatting any hurdles to acceptance.

“We have to focus to educate not only developers, but lenders, architects and different cities,” he says. “Modular has been at the grassroots level for the last 15 to 20 years, but it’s really starting to be accepted now because there are so many established proofs of concepts.”