May 6, 2021

In the News: Western Real Estate Business – Maximizing Modular Fabrication

This article originally appeared in Western Real Estate Business’ online edition, April 2021.

Regions like the Bay Area can greatly benefit from modular construction, especially as the area grapples with affordability and housing crises.


Modular construction is steadily growing in popularity among developers as a sustainable, cost-effective, and quicker way to deliver projects. Ideal for markets such as hospitality and multi-family – especially student- and affordable housing – this innovative delivery model is becoming more attractive when considering solutions for revitalizing our communities and building in our post-pandemic world.

A type of prefab construction, the modular method ranges from manufacturing components, such as panels and walls, to full volumetric units, including kitchens and bathrooms. Modules are fabricated in a factory setting and shipped to the site for installation. Using factory-assembled modules on a project, provides better quality control, reduced waste on-site and lower carbon footprints. Perhaps even more appealing are the savings in time and possibly cost – construction timelines can be accelerated by as much as 40 percent and some projects have seen between 10 and 15 percent reductions in cost.

Save Time, Save Money

The upfront building costs of modular and traditional projects are different; this is due to the upfront decision-making process and early factory onboarding required. Early decision making and “design freezes” lock in cost and prevent change orders. The real savings with modular is derived from the accelerated building timelines. Prefabricated pieces are built offsite in climate-controlled factories – eliminating weather-related delays and allowing for the concurrent construction of the site’s foundation and the building superstructure.

To maximize the efficiencies of prefabrication, the project team not only has to coordinate the design of the building but also communicate the basis of the design and any green building compliance standards before procurement begins. This allows factories to source materials and products regionally or with preferred vendors. Prior to full production, a prototype module is created for the owner and project team to review and approve. This is the time to make any minor modifications to finish details and materials before the final procurement and full production begins.

It is critical to approve and work out any issues with the prototype as it serves as the standard for the modules that follow in production. Due to the fast pace of factory production, the team is unable to examine each unit as they are constructed in the factory, and inspection falls to the contractor and third-party reviewer agency to validate code compliance and adherence to the standards of the prototype. When done properly, the upfront design phase significantly reduces change orders and contributes to the overall efficiency the modular process provides.

Is the Site Right?

A critical factor in determining if modular is a viable option for a project relies heavily on the site and staging areas available at the project’s location. Modular buildings are built with volumetric, rectangular boxes craned onto site-built foundations, making flat, rectangular sites ideal. Round or irregularly shaped sites do not lend themselves to efficient use of the technology, resulting in modular being a less practical route. Additionally, you will need clear access to the site for trucks and there should be few, if any, aerial obstructions that may impede craning boxes onto the site.

Zoning designation is also an important factor to consider. Most modular buildings are one foot taller per floor than site-built projects and may not fit within the site’s zoning envelope because the codes that are already in place did not anticipate modular construction. As such, it is imperative to check on the allowable building height before forging ahead with a modular project, or be willing to compromise with lower ceiling heights.

Interconnected Processes

To fully realize the benefits of modular for a more iterative and less linear design process, modular buildings should be approached as a connected component system to help inform all phases of a project. This requires collaboration not just with MEPS consultants, but also with the factory and site contractor. Looking beyond the building’s structure and its constitutive components is fundamental, as modular projects need to be intentional about the process by which the modules are designed, fabricated, transported, and connected. The design of individual modules may be affected by the manufacturing standards and assembly process of a particular facility, and at the same time, the parameters of the design will dictate the ideal execution of those processes. The overall design should look at the size of individual unit types and modules and how those sizes can be optimized across multiple unit and module types to increase production efficiencies.

Post-Pandemic Rebuilding

Modular construction is a viable delivery method for projects and developers can only benefit from learning how to work with it. It makes the most sense for projects with a high volume of repetitive units, such as multifamily housing, hotels and student housing. In California, modular building is increasingly relied upon as a solution to help jump start the region’s post-pandemic recovery.

With modular design and construction, hotel development has been accelerated, with build time reduced to between 12 – 24 months. A modular approach means less phasing than conventional construction, and because labor costs are down, this can translate into significant savings. In Oakland, Calif., the new Moxy Hotel by Marriott International is the first modular project in the city’s downtown core and serves as an anchor for the surrounding neighborhood. The seven-story building yields 72,615 square feet with 173 guest rooms and retail space that has been designed to support communal gathering at the monthly “Oakland First Friday” festivals that take place just outside.

Additionally, in a region starved for affordable housing options, modular design is accelerating the production of housing units, as exemplified by the Mayfair development in El Cerrito, Calif. The site, previously a surface parking lot for commuters accessing public transit, will feature a six-story mix of 223 affordable and market-rate units in separate, U-shaped buildings surrounding a pair of courtyards with a central open space between them that will open to the public during the day. Work on the first phase of the Mayfair project started Oct. 28, 2020 with the installation of the first modular units. Ten days later, the assembly of modular units had reached its full height of six stories with completion anticipated in June 2021.

Given its potential cost- and real time-saving benefits, modular building is increasingly being woven into the fabric of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area and is offering reasons for optimism in this notoriously labor and housing-strapped region.

Nick Gomez has over 15 years of experience working on multi-family housing and modular projects for both nonprofit and for-profit clients. As Director of Lowney Architecture’s Multi-family Studio, Nick has managed award-winning projects from design development through construction administration.

To evaluate solutions for an existing property, or to discuss modular plans for your next project, please contact Nick at moc.h1718889091craye1718889091nwol@1718889091kcin1718889091, or reach another member of the Lowney Architecture team at 510-836-5400.





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