Magazine article University Business

Modular Building and the Bottom Line

Magazine article University Business

Modular Building and the Bottom Line

Article excerpt

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 [2007] 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 he 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. …

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