Modular construction is a process in which a building is constructed off-site, under controlled plant conditions, using the same materials and designing to the same codes and standards as conventionally built facilities – but in about half the time.
So why don't we utilize this on every project?
My first introduction to modular construction was back in the 1990’s on a corrections facility made completely of modular precast “twin cells.” These precast “boxes” were made in a production factory in Louisiana in nearly clean room conditions, and the interior of all the prison cells were finished and furnished. The interior walls were painted, doors and security hardware installed, bunks installed and all mechanical and electrical were completed in a small chase, which would be tied together when the “twin cells” were stacked on top of each other. These units were being shipped all over the country, either on barges or over the road.
Fast forward a few decades, we are now seeing wood frame multifamily housing units being fabricated in a production facility in Owatonna for installation at the second Rise Modular project in St. Paul. This $40M housing project will ship and install factory built “boxes” with painted walls and installed flooring and lighting. These housing pods will then be stacked up like Legos to form a 7-story apartment complex!
"Modular climate-controlled production can shorten a construction schedule, which in turn saves money and gets the project generating income much sooner."
Modular climate-controlled production can shorten a construction schedule, which in turn saves money and gets the project generating income much sooner. Housing pods like Rise are just the latest innovative factory-made construction components. Exterior wall systems made from wood and covered in brick or other masonry have been happening in a production facility in Worthington, MN for the past several decades. Fullerton Building Systems has been manufacturing exterior walls system for such clients as Taco Bell and KFC, where walls are completed and erected within just about a week onsite.
Interior wall prefabrication has also been expanding over the past decade. Glass wall office fronts are what is most typically seen around the country and here in the Twin Cities metro. Great strides have been made in healthcare construction especially and companies like Dirtt have been expanding their products to provide complete patient rooms constructed entirely out of their interior wall systems.
The push to modular and prefabrication has come relatively slowly to the construction industry, with part of the hesitation in that productivity most benefits areas of the work that can be repeated over and over the same way. But since we are truly seeing wide ranging labor shortages, developers and owners are recognizing that modular construction, with its industrialized and automated processes, are the next step to delivering projects potentially faster than traditional construction and thus saving dollars.
At Welsh Construction, we regularly use prefabricated glass wall systems for our interior office projects and are more regularly performing analysis for clients on exterior wall panel versus conventional construction installations. Ultimately, the push more towards prefab and modular will be driven by cost and time and if predictions of the labor market shortage for tradesmen and women continue to be more and more dire, these “trends” will finally be here to stay.
MEGHAN HUBER President, Welsh Construction