Dozens of new, low-income apartments went on the rental market this September in Cass Corridor, the poorest neighborhood in Detroit. The $13 million Brainard Street Apartment project consists of 20 three-story brick buildings, with a total of 120 two- and three-bedroom units. But some of the best news to those waiting for homes was how fast the buildings went up. The project would have taken two years to build using traditional methods, according to Patrick Dorn, executive director of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp., which managed the construction. But because Dorn opted for modular construction, it took only eight months from start to finish. That means residents got into their homes–and started paying rent–16 months earlier than they would have with a conventional construction approach.
Like other multifamily builders, Dorn was attracted to modular not only by the shortened schedule, but also by the cost structure. Because of the factory construction, two-thirds of the project's costs were fixed, meaning fewer variable costs for building materials than on a traditional build. There were other benefits, too. The modular manufacturer, All American Building Systems in Decatur, Ind., could manufacture and deliver three buildings per week, place the buildings on their foundations, and lock them up the same day. That meant fewer materials losses on the job site.
A modular building, such as the Saranor Elderly Apartment Complex in Milford, Conn., can be as attractive as any project. To do it efficiently, get the architect and manufacturer together at the beginning of the process.
"We didn't have problems with vandalism and theft," says Dorn.
Brainard Street may be on the crest of a trend. Steve Snyder of the Modular Building Association, an industry trade group based in Harrisburg, Pa., confirms that while modular still accounts for just a small number of multifamily projects, that number is growing, and for the same reasons that modular has become popular with single-family builders: It can save time and money. As such, modular construction is being used for everything from inner-city apartments like Brainard Street to college dormitories and senior housing complexes.
The motivation for going modular started in the Northeast because of unpredictable weather and the short building season, but it has since expanded into central states and the West, according to Eric Fulton of the National Association of Home Builders' Building Systems Council. That's because with so much construction going on, builders have been hard-pressed to keep up with the housing demand.
"Modular helps relieve scheduling backlogs because turnaround times are so much shorter," Fulton says.
But while a single-family modular project is relatively simple, multifamily buildings are a bit more complex. Like any decision, understanding the pros, cons, and pitfalls will help you determine whether modular is right for your project and will go a long way toward ensuring a hassle-free construction process.