Trading Spaces

Education administrators face the dual dilemma of crowded, aging facilities and tightening capital budgets. The challenge is to build the necessary classroom, laboratory and activity space while minimizing the length and expense of the construction process.

One solution that offers an affordable alternative is modular construction, a method that provides space in less time and at a lower cost than conventional construction methods. Once viewed as a stopgap measure, modular construction has matured since the days of temporary classrooms and now is accepted by many as a permanent solution to space problems.

More than temporary

The student population in U.S. public schools reached more than 48.1 million in 2003, according to the National Education Association. The U.S. Department of Education expects the number of high school graduates to increase 11 percent by 2011.

The increasing student population puts pressure on school districts to build classroom space. At the same time, fiscal constraints and rising construction costs make it difficult to meet space needs. Permanent modular construction offers an alternative.

The image of modular structures as trailer classrooms is outdated. Temporary portable classrooms still are a solution to short-term space problems, but structures erected with permanent modular construction methods are comparable to conventionally built schools in terms of strength, sustainability and safety.

Faster occupation, lower costs

Two characteristics that educators may find appealing about modular construction are speed and affordability. A modular school building or addition generally can be erected more quickly than a “stick-built” structure — a matter of a few weeks to less than six months, depending on the size and complexity of the project. This typically results in lower costs and earlier occupation of the building.

Conventional construction methods usually require a multi-layered process: site preparation, utility installation, framing, infrastructure installation (plumbing, electric, HVAC), enclosing the structure, and finishing work. Depending on the size of the building, construction can stretch over many months or years.

Modular construction accelerates this process. While site preparation is underway, individual modules are designed and built off-site. Instead of framing a building on-site, then waiting for the plumbing and electrical trades to complete their portions of the job, modules are assembled with utilities, plumbing, wiring and cabling in place, ready to be dropped in at final assembly. These modules can be fitted completely at the factory — electrical wiring, plumbing, HVAC, flooring, millwork, communications cabling — everything short of moving in the furniture. The Modular Building Institute estimates that modules can be up to 95 percent complete before they are shipped from the factory to the assembly site.

Because site preparation can be performed while the modules are built off-site, the construction schedule can be shortened by an average of 40 percent. Off-site construction also means less disruption of activities in and around the construction site. This can be important for school additions, where an extended construction timetable can disrupt classroom instruction.

Staying sustainable

Building individual modules in a climate-controlled, factory environment minimizes weather delays and enhances quality control. Many modular building companies are in the process of adopting the standards espoused by such groups as California's Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has developed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

For school administrators who are pressed for space, but have limited budgets and uncertain long-term needs, modular construction offers a viable alternative. Modern modular construction methods produce aesthetically pleasing, efficient buildings that retain a high degree of flexibility.

Cort is president of Triumph Modular, a modular construction and leasing company based in Littleton, Mass.

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