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Is Modular Design and Construction Right for Higher Education Projects?

Bergmeyer Principal Darryl Filippi shares why modular design and construction is an excellent option for higher education facilities.
2021 12 6modulardesign endicott

Originally published in American School and University's 2021 Architectural Portfolio, Darryl Filippi explains the benefits of choosing the modular design and construction route.

Is modular design and construction right for higher education projects?

As architects, we aim to find the right solution for unique problems. When our client at Endicott College found the school was short on beds for student enrollment, they immediately reached out to Bergmeyer to ask how a 300- bed residence hall could be designed and built in less than 14 months. We knew the response “it’s not possible” was not an option. Working with our building partner, Windover Construction, we quickly realized that building through volumetric modular construction was the only option.

The great debate I’ve heard against modular construction is that it doesn’t live up to the durability requirements of higher education facilities. While the most significant benefit of modular construction is an accelerated project completion schedule, it doesn’t mean that quality has to suffer.

The modular construction industry thrives on building within a controlled environment. By eliminating the influences of weather and site logistics, quality consistency can be achieved through a well-managed workforce and refined detailing.

Even with a high level of quality control, continuous and thoughtful engagement throughout the modular fabrication design and construction process is still a necessity for design/builders. Fabrication must consider the rigors of travel so material selection and construction are inherently part of the process, reinforcing the commitment to a very durable end-product.

Can modular construction be delivered for less cost?

While material costs are driven by the market, modular construction is almost always more advantageous due to benefits from its fabrication efficiency, reduced labor costs, and delivering the site to completion faster than traditional stick-built projects. However, as we face today’s supply chain challenges, an additional benefit we’re finding is the buying power of established fabricators allows them to order and manage the material supplies as one streamlined source.

For example, our project with Endicott College's Standish Hall allowed us to construct 128 modular units (typically 12 feet wide by 52 feet long), including kitchens, bathrooms, windows, mechanical, electrical, and fire protection. There’s a tremendous advantage to negotiating price when dealing with that level of product being delivered to one plant.

It’s imperative that the architect, contractor, and fabricator collaborate on managing the design and construction to maximize the efficiency and delivery of the product and to ensure that it’s delivered in a timely manner to reduce on-site construction.

Our team at Bergmeyer is integrating technology through Building Information Modeling (BIM), which speeds up coordination and fabrication while reducing conflicts which can save on costly changes that typically arise during on-site construction.

This translates to less on-site construction on occupied campuses, contributing to better campus safety and fewer negative impacts to campus life.

Does modular design limit creativity?

Residence halls are a fantastic candidate for modular construction due to the repetitive nature of the program. While modular construction has historically prioritized repetition and efficiency over aesthetics, there have been significant advancements to the ‘look’ of modular buildings in recent years, particularly when a skilled designer partners with an experienced contractor and knowledgeable fabricator; the only limit we have with modular construction is our own creativity.

There are strategic design moves we need to be aware of for internal planning in relation to constructability, but the exterior envelope is flexible in relation to massing, materials, natural light, ventilation, and of course, budget.

I find not only are all the components of fabricating “the box” important with their infrastructure and interior components, but the same strategic thinking must also be considered for the exterior materials and windows. In my mind, the more that can be completed within the factory versus on-site, the faster the project is delivered.

Our recent design for Endicott College’s Standish Hall limited the use of masonry but incorporated large cement fiber panels so surface areas could be covered quickly. In contrast, on a current project being developed in Albany, NY, our design optimizes windows, so the surface areas that will be installed in the field are basically metal panels that cover the joints between the modules. Two different facades are achieved using basic modular components.

When it comes to the quality of the interior spaces, again, there is no limit. Functional, warm, engaging environments can stand the test of time and rival to any traditional stick-built environments.

Modular buildings achieve higher STC (sound transmission coefficient) due to double walls and floors/ceilings, thereby doubling insulating control. Nowhere does acoustical performance contribute to students’ health and wellness than in where they live and sleep.

While modular design/construction is a slam dunk for residence halls, we are also eager to adapt it to other project types. With our Windover Construction partners, Bergmeyer has also conceptualized on a nursing teaching center at another New England campus.

Understanding the nuances of volumetric modular fabrication allows us to think beyond the program and concentrate on delivering functional and beloved projects to campuses in a timely manner, regardless of market conditions.

Scroll through the images of Endicott College’s Standish Hall from construction to completion.

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