Modular construction: “Not yet there”
“There is only one way for a modular project to go right, and a million ways to go wrong.”
By John E. McNellis, Director at McNellis Partners, for WOLF STREET:
Watch the construction sufficiently and it may happen to you that things have not changed much since the construction frenzy of Ramses II. Yes, we have cranes, forklifts, and power saws, but a lot of the construction still comes down to backbreaking work: guys digging ditches, pushing wheelbarrows, or swinging hammers. Marry this mundane observation with our apparent need to disrupt and revolutionize every industry and your offspring is modular construction.
What is modular construction? It is a method of construction, not a type of building. It’s a matter of or rather than what. Instead of erecting a building on site, most of a modular structure is built off site. Everything but the foundations of a project, the exterior cladding and the roof are assembled in a factory thousands of kilometers away. It’s about building an apartment building in individual modules – imagine freight containers – in Boise, for example, by trucking them to your site, placing them on your foundation, and then screwing them sideways. side by side, then stacking them floor by. floor like a child’s building blocks.
When completed, the Modular Building Institute states that “modular buildings are virtually indistinguishable from their built-in-place counterparts.”
Why do this? Why go wrong with a construction method that has worked for five thousand years? Simple. Modular companies say their approach saves up to 40% on construction costs and finishes buildings 40-50% faster. How? ‘Or’ What?
First, like the offshoring of tech work, there are big wage savings: you can pay those carpenters in Boise $ 18 an hour instead of $ 50 in the Bay Area.
Second, there are no rain delays in a factory; its carpenters can hammer nails 365 days a year; and third, you can finish your apartments at the factory at the same time that your local contractor does all your work on the site: leveling, trenching, utilities, pouring the foundation, etc. When the foundation is finished, so are your apartments; this should – in theory – cut months of your build time.
Even though these cost savings turn out to be elusive – one homeowner I spoke with said his modular project cost as much and took just as long as traditional construction – there are a few compelling reasons for modular. By moving the construction process to where the trades can afford to live, this is one small way to address the labor shortage in the construction industry across the country. More importantly, this should prove to be a big step forward for the health and safety of workers: an apartment on an assembly line can be raised and lowered to accommodate the painful backs of carpenters; plumbers don’t need to crawl under the floor. And, if you work in the factory, you have no risk of falling into a five story project.
Modular construction has been around for decades. Why didn’t he take off?
“There’s only one way for a modular project to go right, and a million ways to go wrong,” said Ken Lowney, president and founder of Lowney Arch. Having designed and overseen the construction of modular buildings in excess of 5,000 units, Lowney has experienced most of the problems one can encounter with the process: modules that fit like a badly cut puzzle, modules that have been damaged. during transport, modules that were not properly weatherproof and therefore ruined pending installation, or even bankruptcy or bankruptcy of the modular construction companies themselves.
Lowney believes modular isn’t the solution for every project, but rather one of the tools homeowners and builders should consider. “It works best for projects with more than 100 units located on flat, rectangular sites with a large area of land. It can really shine with suburban hotels. If you build the same hotel room over and over again, the efficiency of the modular can kick in. Marriott is a big promoter. “
A major contractor said his team wasted too much time “pre-piloting” a half-dozen modular projects that hadn’t been completed, likely because the cost savings weren’t there. “Modular is more avant-garde than cutting-edge today.”
He pointed to a constraining factor in the process: Without a “depot” yard within half a mile of the project to store modules delivered awaiting installation, the concept simply doesn’t work. This eliminates heavily urbanized areas as modular candidates. He also highlighted the elephant in the modular factory: unions. Wherever unions can effectively veto the approval of a project, San Francisco, Modular will only proceed with their participation.
Another entrepreneur was much more optimistic about the future of modular. “It’s not there yet, but it’s inevitable,” said Paul Cunha, vice president of SD Deacon, a major West Coast entrepreneur. “The country needs it to address both our labor and housing shortages.”
He compared the state of modular construction to the automotive industry. “Modular is way beyond the Model T stage, but far from Tesla. It’s like car manufacturing in the 1940s, right after the war. But they’re going to figure it out, they’re going to make it work a lot more efficiently than building on site. “
For the sake of our housing shortage, let’s hope it arrives soon. By John E. McNellis, author of Succeeding in real estate: getting started as a developer.
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