Published in the September 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Resource conservation and flexibility are two important concepts in sustainable design. Facility management (FM) professionals who are focused on reducing their organizations’ environmental footprints surely have these ideas in mind as they consider upcoming construction projects. Reducing the energy and materials used in building a new facility is a step that can have a positive impact further down the line.
Modular buildings (also known as prefabricated and pre-engineered buildings) are gaining notice as a sustainable alternative to traditional, permanent structures. In the right situation, a modular facility is capable of meeting both the functional and environmental goals of an organization. A modular facility can serve a range of projects, from a few hundred square feet up to several hundred thousand square feet, with limitations influenced by what local, state, and federal building codes allow. Often viewed as providing temporary shelter for a specific purpose, modular buildings are increasingly being used for permanent operations as well.
Discussing the sustainable attributes of these structures, Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a Charlottesville, VA-based organization serving non-residential modular construction, says, “The opportunities with modular have always been available. Recent successes have been a result of end users seeking alternative methods of construction to save energy, time, and money in addition to finding modular to be the applicable solution.”
Commercial Modular Construction 2008, a report recently released by the MBI, describes the state of the industry during 2007 and includes a breakdown of which sectors purchased modular buildings (for both permanent and temporary use). Leading the market for the wholesale manufacturers surveyed was office (including construction site trailers), representing 49% of unit sales; second was education with 24%. Military use made up 6%, followed by retail/other commercial and healthcare facilities, both represented at 4%.
For some facility managers (fms), modular structures may bring to mind limitations, perhaps in terms of square footage, suitable building materials, or their ability to withstand the elements. But manufacturers leading the industry have improved upon construction methods and materials to provide cost-effective, high performance structures. Some of these companies are working with organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) to identify and meet the requirements set forth by these green building groups.
“A common misconception is that modular [buildings are] built with inferior materials or [are] not built to code,” says Hardiman. When asked about the high levels of formaldehyde found in the housing trailers distributed by FEMA to people affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hardiman notes that those trailers, while built to ANSI standards, were not constructed to meet building codes.
The Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC studied the situation with the FEMA trailers, and in a February 2008 statement, scientists Joseph Hagerman and Brian Doherty wrote that the FEMA specification put out to builders, “provided no guidance about its expectations for quality, and never specified requirements for indoor air quality, fire safety, safety in high winds, energy efficiency (for affordable energy bills), or countless other essential measures to ensure public safety and to minimize overall project costs. This created a situation that allowed manufacturers to use the cheapest, substandard materials available to construct inadequate homes for those in need.”
The acoustical performance of modular structures has historically been reported as under par, and the industry has addressed this issue, so much so that educational facilities (where sound quality is important to the learning environment) made up almost a quarter of the purchases in 2007, according to the recent MBI report.
Says Hardiman, “In some cases, a modular building is being manufactured before the final site is determined-in the case of temporary or relocatable classrooms, for example. It is impossible to build to a specific site with unique acoustical conditions in this case. Working with the Acoustical Society of America [located in Melville, NY] on improving classroom acoustics in relocatables has led to significant breakthroughs.”
Many green strategies being built into new facilities (or added to existing facilities) are compatible with modular buildings. For instance, the structures can be outfitted with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. And conservation practices, such as rainwater harvesting, can also be installed on a modular building.
While modular structures appear to offer many of the same sustainable benefits as on-site construction, one area where the method can set itself apart is in its manufacturing. “Modular offers a significant advantage with regard to reduction in construction materials waste,” says Hardiman. “Modular manufacturers are able to buy material in bulk and store any unused materials for the next project.”
Each module of a building is put together in a manufacturing plant. This assembly line construction fosters efficiency in time and materials. It also enables the manufacturer to contain waste materials at the plant (rather than on a construction site), which aids in recouping that waste for another use. Further, as the modules are joined at the facility site, the fact that they are largely assembled at that point spares them much of the rain, snow, and other weather conditions that often create moisture problems in a structure before it’s complete.
The life of a modular building can extend beyond its original function if an organization can identify another use for the space. If a bank decided to close down one of its modular branches, for instance, the facility could be moved to serve another location. This involves partially disassembling the building, shutting down utility infrastructure, and moving to the new lot; however, these actions enable the avoidance of constructing a new facility while also retaining the materials comprising the modular unit.
If an organization chooses not to reuse its modular building, one option is to sell the unit back to the manufacturer where it can be held in inventory. If the unit is not resold, it can be disassembled for materials recycling. Another choice for modular unit owners is to contract with a service provider to disassemble and purchase the resulting materials. Modular buildings may be a viable choice for an increasing number of projects. “As an industry, we are still learning about the green building process, but the advantages and opportunities are certainly available with modular construction,” says Hardiman. In evaluating how this approach will meet operational needs, as well as sustainable requirements, fms may find modular fits the bill.
Research for this article included an interview with Hardiman. To download a recently released report on modular buildings and the LEED rating system, visit www.mbinet.org. To read the Federation of American Scientists statement referenced in this article, visit www.fas.org and conduct a search for the report, “Two & A Half Years Later: Surviving the FEMA Aftermath.”