Modular construction can offer time and design benefits

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Bill Seery
Bill Seery

“In most nursing homes, and in many assisted living services, a very important element has been forgotten: home,” according to Action Pact, a Manhattan, KS, development firm specializing in senior living.

“Without it, our elders experience a loss of joy and meaning in their lives,” the company said. To remedy this shortcoming in traditional senior living, the firm seeks to transform assisted living communities into “warm and pleasant households.”

It's a philosophy that resonated with Methodist Homes of Alabama and Northwest Florida for the renovation and expansion of the Fair Haven Retirement Community in Birmingham, AL. The $42 million project, built by Golden Construction (Birmingham), used Action Pact's philosophy of creating households with their own kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms and private sleeping quarters. Additionally, the living spaces feature cove lighting, in-room heating/cooling controls and other finishes for a home-like environment. As a result, Fair Haven promises its residents “a lifelong celebration of independence, purpose and enrichment.”

Creating these warm and pleasant households without breaking the budget required Golden Construction to pursue innovative and ultra-efficient building methods.

“We needed to bring speed to the project to drive financing cost down and create room in the budget for items important to meeting the owner's vision for these buildings,” said Hunter Benton, project manager for Golden Construction.

To shave two months from the construction schedule and reduce project costs, Golden specified pre-fabricated modular bathrooms. In addition to speeding construction, “Having the bathrooms prefabricated offsite gave us an opportunity to combat the increasing workload the market put on the labor resources in our area,” Benton said.

The rise of modular construction

Between 2010 and 2016, U.S. contractors tripled their amount of project work using prefabrication, according to Bloomberg BNA. Additionally, according to that article, “during that period, contractors have gone from investing about 12 percent to 20 percent of their labor hours in prefabrication.”

Elite Care, a provider of senior living in the Portland, OR, area, is a big believer in modular construction. CEO Jason Hess said he believes that modular construction provides better-quality buildings because units are assembled in a controlled factory setting instead of out in the elements.

“Everything is laser guided and precision cut,” he said in an interview with the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. He compares modular construction with building a BMW in a factory versus building the cars in a muddy field.

Modular construction ranges from entire rooms to sets of rooms, with individual bathroom pods being one of the most common candidates for prefabrication.

Traditional construction versus modular bathrooms

From luxury hotels and public housing to senior living, modular bathrooms are growing in popularity with property developers and building owners.

“The bathroom is the most complex part of a hotel room,” said Greg Steinhaeur, president of Seattle-based developer American Life. “You have many different trade professionals working in a small space, plus lots of materials having to go up the lift, to build them.”

With traditional bathroom construction, general contractors have to sequence 10 construction trades — including electrical, plumbing and finishing work ranging from painting to mirror hanging — all working in an area of about 50 to 100 square feet. Big challenges can exist with coordinating the dependent tasks on the Gantt chart, especially given the limited availability of workers in today's tight skilled construction labor market.

With so many trades coming and going in a confined area, there's also substantial risk of damage to previously completed work. As a result, bathroom rework accounts for about 60% of the punch-list in most hotel projects, resulting in four to six weeks of delays — with similar issues in other multi-housing projects such as senior living. Such bathroom quality problems can lead to higher finance fees from longer construction as well as lost revenue when projects open late.

In comparison, pre-fabricated bathroom pods can offer developers the advantages of speed, simplicity, superior quality and job site safety. Modular bathrooms are built in a factory setting to each project's specifications, then are delivered by truck to the job site with all of the finishes and fixtures pre-installed. Construction crews get the pods to the appropriate floor via crane, then slide them into the structure while the building façade is still open. The bathrooms pods are somewhat like a dishwashers in that they're slid into place, ready to “plug and play.”

Planning needed to ensure success

Although modular construction using prefabricated bathrooms offers many benefits, it is crucial to plan appropriately to ensure success.

As Golden Construction's Benton noted, it is important to set up project scopes with subcontractors to avoid any duplicate pricing or added contingency related simply to the unknown.

“Prefabrication is tough, but so is building traditionally” he said. “With pre-fab, when you figure it out, you give yourself an opportunity to succeed on a whole new level.”

Bill Seery is director of business development for Oldcastle SurePods modular bathrooms. He has specialized in the building prefabrication industry for more than 10 years, with responsibilities for both management and operations. A winner of the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence, he holds an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an MBA from Bentley University. Contact Seery at Bill.Seery@oldcastle.com.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes marketplace columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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