I was talking with a friend the other day about modular construction and why I was a fan of it. When I told him that hotel rooms often are built off-site as modules and installed in virtually complete form, he was blown away.
Because he's not in the building business, it's no surprise that modular construction is somewhat of a mystery to him. But the more I consider the topic, the more I'm sure there are many people in charge of developing sites for restaurants and stores in addition to hotels that don't know as much about modular construction as they should. The construction method makes sense on so many levels that developers of any specialized space should give some consideration to it. In addition to hotels, especially-appropriate venues for deployment of modular-built spaces include shopping malls, airports, hospitals and college dorms and student centers.
Here is a definition I like for modular construction: A process in which a building is constructed off-site in discreet sections, 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. Once put together on site, the modular components reflect the identical design intent and specifications of the most sophisticated site-built facility.
Some of the benefits derived from modular construction for buildings can be likened to the benefits for cars built on an assembly line.
Auto Assembly Line
Improved quality control
Imagine that if every time someone wanted to buy a car, a couple of trucks showed up (hopefully at the same time) and several crew. Imagine further that the crew had to unload the trucks of the various parts it took to assemble the car, lay them out across the best working space they could find, and hope for suitable weather. Different crews would have to be trained, depending on where the car was being built. If a part were defective, production would be slowed until its replacement could be ordered, shipped and received.
Cars would be more expensive. It would take longer to take delivery of one. And because of the inconsistent experience levels of the assemblers and the variable working conditions, it would almost certainly be less reliable and durable.
Now, it is too simple to describe the assembly of modular components as just another iteration of Henry Ford's assembly line. The core components of it are present, however.
Employees are the same from one project to the next, allowing them to become intimately familiar with the needs of each project. If certain points in the assembly process present a challenge not called for in the original design, workers can develop a work-around and apply it uniformly. Owing to the benefit of doing a task repeatedly, the workers become more skilled and more efficient, making more components per period and at a higher quality.
Because of the controlled environment, parts that are unused for one project can be saved with very little expense, thus reducing waste. Worker skill helps with this one, too: Fewer mistakes means fewer 2x4s on the scrap pile, resulting in a project that is friendlier to the earth.
Last but not least — and maybe even first — is that experience and a controlled environment helps dramatically reduce construction-related injuries.
Once placed inside the eventual building, the modular units help make the structure more rigid than if it had been without modular components. This is so because units must adhere to structural standards that are generally more rigorous than for stand-alone buildings, because the modular pieces will have to withstand transportation and assembly forces.
In a later blog, we'll talk about other benefits, such as cost-savings, the minimization of site disruption and the ability to hasten positive ROI. Until then, I really encourage foodservice, retail and hospitality planners to think about how modular construction can make them a hero with their company's clients, account execs and accountants.