March 17, 2021

The Building Blocks of Modular

We’re big fans of modular construction – first writing about it back in 2018. It’s generally considered a faster, smarter, and greener way to build and is increasingly popular for highly-replicable formats like hotels, multi-family housing and residence halls. With strong endorsements from major hoteliers like Marriott, Hilton and IHG, we’re seeing hospitality developers embracing modular more than ever before.

One of the most notable modular hotels – San Antonio’s Hilton Palacio del Rio – was constructed for the 1968 World’s Fair. Use of modular guestroom units for the property’s 496 rooms were the critical tool needed to complete the hotel on schedule for the Fair’s opening. The team utilized 35-ton precast concrete modules to construct the 21-story tower; rooms were fully-furnished, down to the towels and light bulbs, before they were lifted into place by a 300-ton super crane.

A modern marvel at the time, modular construction has evolved substantially in the ensuing 50+ years, meaning solutions get more impactful every day. For the uninitiated: what is modular, exactly? It’s when building components – sometimes single elements, sometimes the entire building – are manufactured and constructed off-site in a fully-controlled environment. They’re then delivered to the site and moved into place before the building’s exterior skin is added. Like Lego’s®, the specific pieces fit tightly together to create a larger vision. Modular first gained popularity in the United States in the residential market before taking hold in the commercial sector.

Today, developers and their design teams can integrate different types of modules into their project. We work primarily with three specific types:

  • Bathroom-Only Modules: These take a more complicated piece of the floor plan and regiments hem to be fit into a more traditional site-built structure.
  • Full Volumetric Wood Modules: Full guestroom units that include two units and a corridor. Typically manufactured in the States and trucked to building sites.
  • Full Volumetric Steel Modules: Full guestroom units like those above, but typically manufactured abroad. They’re then shipped and placed on-site. These modules tend to be most often used in coastal or port locations given the need for delivery from overseas.

Over the last few years we’ve completed several modular projects and currently have two high-rise modular hotels under construction. And in that time, we’ve learned a few things. So, what do we recommend for a stress-free modular experience?

  • Get a strong GC involved as soon as possible. Ideally, work with a contractor who has done modular before and understands what’s involved. Design/build or negotiated contracts with preconstruction services included are most beneficial as you’ll need their engagement in the modular process early on.
  • Engage with your jurisdiction early. Understand who reviews and who inspects the site built vs. modular aspects of the work, what codes are applicable, and how the modules fit into the equation – everyone on the team needs to understand and agree with the plan.
  • Knowledgeable consultants are key. The structural engineering and fire ratings on modular projects can be more granular and nuanced than their site-built counterparts. Enlisting strong engineering partners with expertise early in the process is incredibly helpful.
  • Plan for the “zip-up” work. The modular elements and the building’s site-built aspects need to be “zipped” together, a sometimes-tricky task especially in vertical elements (stairs, elevators, risers) and MEP hookups. The design and construction team need to work closely together to make sure these connections are possible and achievable.
  • Understand your schedule. Yes, a reduced timeline is one of modular’s most defining benefits. But to achieve true schedule savings, design and development teams need to think ahead. Modular factories book up quickly, so you’ll need to secure a spot early. If you’re working with fabricators overseas, consider if or how US trade policy, materials certification and ratings, and transportation logistics will impact your project. And keep in mind that some not all fabricators are the same – some offer structural engineering as part of their service, others do not. Do your homework!

Another thing we’ve discovered? Engineering systems can be a good portion of the site-built expense on any given project, including modular. Lately, we’ve been working on ways to allow for factory installation of the MEP and Fire Protection systems to be installed to a much greater extent in the factory to help reduce those costs in the field. The level of coordination needed to reach that level of design is quite involved and really requires a design-build or design-assist solution, but we’ve found the savings in certain markets are worth the extra effort.

For owners looking to add modular to their development toolkit, now is the time. Studies estimate that – if done correctly – use of volumetric modules can deliver 20-50% schedule reduction as compared to traditional methods. And, at the end of the day: time is money. Understanding the distinctive differences of the process and investing in project partners – from design and construction teams to fabricators and specialty consultants – that can guide and deliver consistently are the critical tools to making modular projects successful.

Interested in knowing more about how we work with hoteliers, developers, and fabricators to deliver modular projects? Just ask. We’d love to tell you more.

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