A Modular Space

April 15, 2013
Modular schools can be a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to traditional construction.

Construction costs are starting to rise once again, and with the realities of shrinking capital budgets, and the increasing demand for new instructional spaces, educational providers need to consider a wide variety of options when creating new facilities. This is particularly true for alternative and choice schools that a education institutions may build without the benefit of state construction funding. For many education providers, the design and construction of a modular school can be a sustainable and cost-effective option.

We are all familiar with one type of modular construction: portable classrooms. They provide flexibility in balancing classroom needs with changing school populations, added programs and supply space for use by the community. However, for various reasons, portable classrooms are not always viewed favorably. They tend to be situated apart from the main school buildings, frequently behind the school in an area that previously was used for play, athletics or parking. Many of them are viewed as plain or unattractive.

Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s School Construction Assistance Program recognizes traditional site built school square footage in its formula for determining the state funding assistance percentage a school district receives, but does not consider portable classroom space.

So why might a school district consider modular construction? 

-Cost savings. Frequently the cost for factory-built schools is less than traditional site-built schools. This is particularly true when the building module sizes are close to those used for standard classroom portables. To achieve the most cost-effective results, it is important that each module is designed taking into account the factory construction practices and transport limitations.

-The construction duration is shorter.This can be the greatest selling point for modular construction. Even a large modular project can have significant time savings.

For the Marysville (Wash.) School District’s Marysville Tulalip Campus, 73,000 square feet of modular construction was used in four buildings, as well as a conventionally constructed gymnasium. The modular buildings house administration, the Arts & Technology High School, Heritage High School and 10th Street Middle School. There are more than 200 modules in the project.  To illustrate how quickly the campus came together: the modules for the 39,000-square-foot Arts & Technology High School were started in the factory in April prior to the completion of the land use permitting process; the clearing and grading on the 20-acre forested site commenced in June; students and teachers began classes in the modular buildings in December; and the remaining campus buildings were completed by the following spring. This would not be possible with conventional construction.

For Lake Washington School District’s Northstar Middle School, Kirkland, Wash., a 95-student campus of four modular buildings was based on a standard double-classroom footprint and custom-designed to accommodate the school’s specific programs. The school previously was situated at Lake Washington High School, but the space it occupied was needed to accommodate ninth-grade students because of the district’s move to four-year high schools. The Northstar campus now is on the same site as Emerson High School. The sitework was started last June and the school will open this September.

-There are multiple options for project delivery. In a typical modular project, the design team will take the project from education specifications through the design development phase in the same fashion as any traditional project. Following the design development phase, the buildings can be purchased directly from a modular building supplier through a public purchasing cooperative such as KCDA (one of the founding members of AEPA (the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies)) or put out for bid. The construction documents for the building(s) are produced as shop drawings by the modular building manufacturer, and the design team prepares the site development drawings. The design team reviews the modular shop drawings and product submittals before construction of the units start. The result of this process tends to be a reduction in change orders.

-Modular buildings are green. Modular buildings can meet sustainable requirements, such as those of the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol, and achieve LEED certification. What really makes factory-built construction green is the reduction in construction waste. Factories order materials in optimal sizes that reduce the need for cutting and modification, and they have the ability to store and later use cut pieces that otherwise would be wasted materials--a process not as readily feasible on a traditional jobsite. There is the delivery of materials to the factory, and transport of the modules to the project site, but the overall environmental impact of vehicular traffic is reduced for most projects.

-Less disruption to site. Because of the reduction in construction duration, most of the sitework can be done in months with favorable weather. This reduces the stormwater construction requirements. The contractor lay-down area on the site is reduced dramatically, resulting in a smaller overall impacted area. This was a primary consideration for the design of The Kirkland Children’s School Outdoor Education Center, Kirkland, Wash. The school wanted to expand, but needed to keep the school in operation during construction, and had little space for contractor staging. The design is a highly customized modular facility with a green walkway that allows for access to outdoor classroom learning environments, nature exploration, peaceful classroom views and open land for future vegetable gardens.

-Reduction of impact to neighbors. This is a major benefit from the shortened time on site.  Fewer days of construction noise, dust, traffic, and construction worker parking leads to happier neighbors.

Other considerations

Modular schools can be designed to be aesthetically beautiful and functionally modern. They can be designed to fit a neighborhood or campus aesthetic by setting the buildings on permanent foundations with their floor levels at grade, resulting in a finished condition that is similar to conventional construction and eliminates the need for ramps.

Additionally, the buildings can be clad with any siding or roofing used in traditional buildings. Twenty-first-century educational environments that are part of newly built traditional schools also can be incorporated into modular spaces. Flexible, adaptable and shared learning spaces can be included in the design, as well as light-filled learning spaces, sustainable features and access to outdoor learning.

For example, each school at the Marysville Tulalip Campus has flexible classrooms, commons spaces and shared learning areas with 25-foot-high ceilings and clerestory windows, which were completed with modular construction.

Modular construction may not be appropriate for all schools, but it does offer options to school districts seeking creative ways to build sustainable and economical 21st-century educational environments.

Dennis Erwood, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal at Studio Meng Strazzara, Seattle, which has designed modular school campuses for Snoqualmie Valley, Marysville and Lake Washington School Districts.

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