If your business is considering expanding, one of the key decisions on the table may be the choice between modular construction and traditional stick built or "hard" construction.
by Conrad Walker
Some of the typical considerations when making this choice are cost, lead time, and code requirements. While this is a good starting point, there are other things to consider such as waste, business down time, ease of expansion/modification, and environmental impact. The following is meant to be a guide that will help compare the two building methods and their benefits - specifically in regard to industrial and commercial buildings such as in-plant offices, modular offices, machine enclosure rooms, etc.
One of the most important factors on any job is time. Lead time, build time, and down time are all important to the building process and can greatly improve or destroy the flow of the project. A traditional "stick built" structure is typically drawn by an architect and approved by the customer. The materials are then delivered to the site (often coming in multiple loads throughout the duration of the project), and the building is constructed. Best case scenario; a small in plant office is completed; start to finish, in about a month's time. Over two weeks of that time is spent on-site, hindering business and creating dust in the air.
Modular construction, on the other hand, can provide decreased lead, build, and down time. For example, a 20 x 40 in plant office can be drawn, manufactured, and shipped to the job site in approximately 5 days (Panel Built 2-Day Quick Ship). Once there, it takes a professional crew about a week to install. Not only does this greatly reduce total project time from one month to two weeks, but it also eliminates job-site material waste and air pollution created by cutting materials on site.
Another important consideration when comparing modular versus stick construction is the ease of future expansion or modification. If your business is growing, the offices you add now might not be enough two years from now. With stick built, adding a second story or an addition would require a certain level of demolition (down to the framing) and then custom construction to match up the addition to the existing structure; once again creating a large amount of unwanted dust and debris in the air around your warehouse or office. However, building an addition with modular construction requires no demolition and can be done with standard materials. Simply start new walls right against existing walls and then unscrew two binder posts and replace a full panel with a door panel to create an entrance into the addition: no need to cut materials and pollute the air. If future expansion is a probability, include a load bearing roof for the in plant office, and a second story will be as easy to build as the first - whether it's next week or next year. Access the second floor with a prefabricated powder-coated stair system and your installation will require little more than tightening a few bolts.
When dealing with commercial and industrial construction, there are usually code requirements that all materials and the finished product must meet if the contractor is pulling a permit on the job. These requirements include load ratings, wind ratings, and fire ratings to name a few. With stick built construction, the architect's drawings must be stamped to assure they meet the codes, and then as the crew finishes various steps of the construction process (foundation, framing, electric, plumbing, etc.), an inspector must come in to approve the work that has been done. With modular construction, the building components are already tested and approved for certain load, wind, and fire ratings. In many cases, modular buildings can be considered equipment in a warehouse and therefore a permit is not required. When a permit is required, the number of inspections is still greatly reduced compared to stick built; and thanks to the ease of installation, it is much easier to ensure the building meets or exceeds the code requirements.
A major concern in today's society is building in an environmentally friendly way. Compared to modular construction, traditional stick building uses less recycled material, and more trailers and heavy equipment which generate air and noise pollution. Traditional construction also creates increased waste due to cutting materials to size on site.
Because modular components are manufactured and assembled in a factory environment, not only is there reduced noise and dust on site, but the material tolerances are much better since everything is done with the proper tools in a controlled environment. The end result is a higher quality product with less down time and on site disturbance.
Finally, there is cost. Although the previous factors are more important to choosing the right building method for the specific need, cost is always a major deciding factor. While it can be hard to compare stick built versus modular construction cost, the following are some considerations to make sure the comparison is accurate. When considering modular construction costs, make sure to include the cost of the structure, installation, any permitting that may be required, the cost of future expansion, and business down time. The same considerations should be made for stick built, with the addition of architect/engineering costs and heavy machinery rental cost. Lastly, consider the tax benefits of choosing modular. Section 179 of the U.S. Tax Code allows businesses to essentially write-off $500,000 in modular construction if completed and occupied during 2011. The code goes on to state modular construction, up to $2 million, can be depreciated over the course of seven years as opposed to the 39.5 years required to depreciate a traditional stick built structure.