Sustainable By Design: Modular Building Hitting Green Stride - Facility Executive Magazine

Historically viewed as temporary shelter, the role of these structures may be changing.
Historically viewed as temporary shelter, the role of these structures may be changing.

Sustainable By Design: Modular Building Hitting Green Stride

Sustainable By Design: Modular Building Hitting Green Stride - Facility Executive Magazine

By Anne Cosgrove 

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 To read the Federation of American  Scientists statement referenced in this article, visit and conduct a search for the report, “Two & A Half Years Later: Surviving  the FEMA Aftermath.”

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