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In this photo from 2017, workers building the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo are shown moving a modular bathroom into place. Ohio-based Pivotek Co. designed and built more than 300 bathroom pods in three different configurations for the center. IMAGE: JLG Architects

Mod squads: Developers install factory-built rooms, bathrooms, other components as reliance on modular construction grows

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – There is a construction process that:

  • Is projected to grow at close to 7 percent a year into a $157 billion market by 2023
  • Might just “trend toward nearly 100 percent market share of all large commercial projects,” one real estate and venture capital CEO says
  • Already accounts for elements of as many as 84 percent of Swedish detached homes
  • Is described by the chief development officer for Marriott International, the hotel chain, as “the future of how we are going to be developing buildings across the United States, Canada and the world”
  • Could help ease both the workforce shortage and affordable housing crises in America, and
  • Has a history that links tall ships, the California Gold Rush, Sears catalogs and Montreal’s Expo ’67.
  • Interested?

    Welcome to modular construction, a technique that’s growing as architects, contractors, developers and property owners see how it helps them solve problems.

    In modular construction, a building’s main components get built offsite, then are transported to the site for final assembly. It’s an expanded version of prefabrication, an already-common construction technique.

    Wells Concrete precasting more than 5,000 stairs, walkways and other elements in its Maple Grove, Minn., factory in 2016, then trucking those components to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which was being built? That’s prefabrication.

    Some 354 factory-made housing cubes being stacked to form Habitat ’67, an architectural landmark from Montreal’s Expo ’67 that’s still occupied today? That’s modular construction.

    Together, the trends are “touching all aspects of the construction industry, from residential all the way to the larger buildings,” said Norma Nusz Chandler, an instructor with the South Dakota State University Department of Construction and Operations Management, in an interview with Prairie Business.

    “They really are convenient and practical methods. And with the challenge of workforce shortages, looking for ways to streamline construction is helpful.”

    In the 1600s, a dissembled house that had been sent via tall ship from England was reassembled in the United States, the Modular Building Institute reports. In 1849, Gold Rush California took delivery of 500 homes that had been made in a factory in New York.  

    Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold 70,000 kit homes by mail order, shipping by rail the raw materials – lumber, nails, nails – and a 75-page instruction book to buyers across the United States.

    And today, “you may have seen a modular home going down the road,” as there are several factories in our region that make them, said Jeffrey Morrau, principal of Artekta Architects in Fargo, N.D., which specializes in modular construction.

    But make no mistake, you probably didn’t recognize the home once it was assembled, because modular buildings these days are almost indistinguishable from structures that are built on site.

    So, too, are the many buildings that have been or are being built using modular components. These include including Sanford Medical Center in Fargo – whose builders hoisted more than 300 factory-made bathrooms into place during construction in 2017 – and the new Clay County Correctional Facility in Moorhead, Minn., whose cells were prefabricated in Georgia and were shipped three on a truck to Moorhead.

    Modular construction offers several advantages, Morrau said.

    One is speed. If you can build the modules (such as the Clay County jail cells) while the site is being prepared, you can save time. This lets builders complete the structure in maybe half the time that an on-site build would require.

    Another is quality control. “Because you’re indoors in a factory, you can keep building your modules in the middle of a snowstorm, and you also can build them 24/7,” Morrau said.

    “If you’re working with wood, it stays dry, as does everything else. It doesn’t get wet as it might when it’s stacked up on a job site.”

    Consistency is an asset, too. In Marriott’s case, “think of their challenge when they’ve got one hotel going up in Denver and another in Des Moines,” Morrau said.

    “Marriott wants the rooms to be identical, but if the company builds on site, it’ll probably use completely different work crews. And it’s hard for different contractors to replicate an identical product.”

    Building the rooms in a factory eliminates that problem. “This way, the consistency is literally perfect; everything is being built by the same crew,” he said.

    “The on-site contractor is simply patching things – plugging the modules in, so to speak.”

    Those factors help explain why hospitality companies have been among the first to embrace modular construction, said Nicole Washburn, principal and director of operations at JLG Architects in Minneapolis.

    “Those businesses need to get to market fast when they want a new hotel to come online,” Washburn said.

    The sooner they can open, the sooner they can start hosting guests in the new facility and recouping their investment, she said.

    Since 2015, developers have built 31 Marriott hotels across North America using prefabricated guest rooms and bathrooms. And in April, Marriott announced plans to build the world’s tallest modular hotel: a 26-story structure in New York City whose 168 rooms will be built in Poland and shipped across the Atlantic to Manhattan.

    Workforce is another advantage Marriott and similar firms are discovering, Washburn said.

    “As you know, trade organizations are having a hard time getting people to learn new trades,” she said.

    “So a benefit of producing within a factory is that training can be very focused.” Plus, the factory workers themselves get to work in a controlled environment, meaning “they’re not trying to frame a building or install a window in bad weather, such as we have during our winters.”

    Modular construction’s disadvantages can include building-code confusion, Morrau said.

    “Typically, modules are inspected in the factory by a certified third-party inspector,” he said.

    “So, now you’re introducing that new element into an established inspection system like you have in most metro areas. It gets a unique reaction, because the on-site inspectors sometimes don’t know how to deal with the pre-certified assemblies that start showing up.”

    Interestingly, cost is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage at this point, Morrau said, though the “advantage” side seems to have the momentum. The transportation costs of getting the modules to the site can eat up the labor-cost savings that result from quicker and easier assembly.

    In California, modular-component manufacturers have responded by opening factories closer to high-growth areas, thereby cutting the transportation costs. Expect that to happen nationwide as awareness of modular’s advantages grows, Morrau said.  

    In downtown Des Moines in 2017, contractors unwrapped and installed about 300 factory-built bathroom pods during construction of an eight-story Hilton hotel, the Des Moines Register reported.

    The process was not new; “Disney was stacking prefabricated resort rooms as early as the 1970s,” the newspaper reported. But at the time, it was new in the region. As a project manager told the Register, “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just bringing it to Iowa.”

    And now it’s being brought to Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota as well.

    Tom Dennis

    Editor, Prairie Business

    tdennis@prairiebusinessmagazine.com

    701-780-1276