Mod Squad

The Modular Building Institute (MBI) is the international trade association that represents commercial modular construction providers, a large percentage of which provide educational solutions to school districts and colleges alike. Each year, MBI conducts a survey of the industry, and MBI’s 2007 survey projects continued expansion in 2008 for both dealers and manufacturers of modular buildings. Indeed, the popularity of accelerated construction solutions cannot be questioned. These charts from that report show the amount of revenue modular dealers and manufacturers account as attributable to the educational sector, which is only second to general office space construction for our industry.

The increasing popularity of modular construction is not surprising. Outside of the time advantages, modular construction is quickly becoming a growing solution to work-force shortages, and large construction companies are leaning more heavily on this construction solution. In fact, today’s commercial modular buildings are cutting-edge facilities of the highest quality, efficiency, endurance, and design. Virtually indistinguishable from site-built construction and meeting the toughest national, state, and local codes in addition to sometimes stringent aesthetic specifications, costs of a modular building are typically competitive with conventional construction.

Multi-story, multi-unit buildings can be constructed in a factory using both steel and concrete. The units, shipped to the site either on a flatbed trailer or on their own axles and tires, are craned into place and joined on site. Once completed, these high-end, factory-built buildings are indistinguishable from site-built construction. There generally are no visual or structural differences whatsoever. Unless you witnessed the construction project, you would never know the building was manufactured in a factory. Thus, at the high end, the method of construction is not readily evident.
The advantages of modular construction remain the same, however. Commercial modular structures are built in a climate- and quality-controlled environment, where savings of as much as 50 percent in overall construction time are not uncommon. Follwoing are four instances that convey how much building you can get in a very short time frame.

Wellesley Pre-School

Wellesley, MA, is an affluent community near Boston with a focus on creative urban planning and quality of life within the community. Their school system has a reputation for excellence and creativity. Although they needed to establish a separate building for the community pre-school, the site available presented a variety of challenges including traffic, drainage, and noise problems. Working with architects, a modular buildings dealer, and modular buildings manufacturer, the school board arrived at a design that answered all these concerns. The planning phase of the project would be longer and more complex than the typical construction project. Thus, any delays could be very costly to the school board if the facility was not ready for spring classes. The modular building dealer developed the site while the modules that would make up the building were under construction at the modular building manufacturer’s facility off-site — helping to trim the construction timeline significantly. The building utilized non-combustible construction with lightweight poured concrete floors. The finished school (pictured here) was designed to dampen noise, resolve area drainage problems, and architecturally complement the surrounding community.

Milestones Middle School Addition
Educators turned to modular construction when faced with the need to incorporate classrooms for middle school grades (seventh and eighth) into an already existing pre K – siixth grade campus. The solution was a complex footprint for the building within a tight site and a plan for interior and exterior student loading to keep the age ranges separate. Grades seven and eight have their own covered courtyard for entry, their own play area, and drop off area. Specialty classrooms, library, and gym/multipurpose room are accessed from internal hallways since these are shared rooms. The exterior finish of the school matches existing buildings in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The interior was designed to be low maintenance for high commercial use, with color and light being used as the main architectural features. Like traditional construction, the school features slab-on-grade foundation with a combination of materials including EIFS and tile roofs. The steel construction provides added strength and durability for many years of commercial high public use.

Thomas Ford Elementary School
An architect, modular construction manufacturer, and general contractor worked together to produce the 48 prefabricated modules and related components for this 24,000-sq.-ft. concrete and steel school facility. In order to streamline the on-site completion of the building, the modular manufacturer completed all structural elements of the building while also commissioning and completing interior finishes — millwork, fitments, folding partitions, final painting, as well as mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems. At the same time, the general contractor completed all foundations, exterior building cladding, and site work. The division of responsibilities was key to meeting a five-month construction timeline and achieving the owner's specified occupancy date. The multipurpose room, which includes a 14-ft. clear ceiling height with exposed spiral ductwork, trusses, and acoustical roof deck, as well as acoustical panels, was completed by the modular construction company at the site. Sound rated folding partitions in large classrooms were also provided to allow for adjustments and variety in classroom sizes.

Cesar Chavez Academy
Cesar-Chavez is a recent addition to the growing community of charter schools in the Detroit area. The school was paying a high rent to occupy a poorly retrofitted warehouse space. They worried that the lack of proper facilities could be detrimental to the educational process. The prime educational setting that was required would need to be completed in a few short months. A close partnership between a modular buildings manufacturer, modular buildings dealer, and the school board led to a 35,000-sq.-ft., two-story facility in the required time frame. The building features ample classroom space, a suite of offices, ceramic-clad restrooms, recessed lockers, storage spaces, an efficient heating plant, and a cafeteria that met the demands of the board. Construction was accomplished on an accelerated timeline, allowing the school to open fall classes in their new facility, saving the school a year of rent, as well as offering the students the immediate benefit of an improved learning environment.

Facing Fallacies
Many misperceptions persist that modular buildings can only address short term facility needs. But these few school examples show the quality of technology, materials, and transportation being used to deliver permanent modular solutions to educational markets every day. Finishes for today’s modular buildings are in every way comparable to site-build construction projects. From wood, to multi-story steel and concrete non-combustible materials, you can get a structure completed with the same materials, and aesthetic feel, as site-built buildings with the additional advantage of speed to completion.

Tom Hardiman is the executive director of the Modular Building Institute (MBI). Based in Charlottesville, VA, MBI is the only international non-profit trade association representing commercial modular construction manufacturers, dealers, and suppliers. For more information, visit