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"An Architect's Perspective
  Convincing a Skeptic:
  My Education in Modular Building Construction"

    by Robert M. Iamello, AIA, NCARB

I was pleased to learn that the Modular Building Institute gave one of my school building projects one of its Awards of Distinction. Looking back at the project, I realized that I was initially skeptical about designing a modular unit as a school building addition. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that with teamwork, an open mind, and creativity, a modular unit was the perfect choice and met the client's pressing deadline.

Housing Students Was Paramount
Permanent Modular School
When I was asked by Dr. Edwin DuRoy of the Paterson Public School District to plan a classroom addition, I thought it would be a typical design project. Student population had increased dramatically, and the project was driven more by time than by cost, as the goal of reducing overcrowded classrooms was paramount. Although cost is always a factor in school construction, the issue of housing students took precedence. Thus, modular building construction became the most viable choice to meet the client's needs. I, however, had to quickly learn more about modular building construction in order to turn around a design and get the project underway.

Design Challenges

Although our firm had managed modular building construction for classrooms in the past, the scope of this project was broad and contained some design challenges. Paterson Public School #27 needed 10 more classrooms, a science lab, a large group room, and student restrooms. The site for the addition was located on a steep sloping hill that could not be
filled in.

Therefore the project had to accommodate the steep grade and look like a natural addition to the existing building. An elevator would be included to provide a vertical link connecting the old and new buildings.

For School Officials, No Convincing Needed

The Paterson Public School District needed no convincing when approached with the idea of modular building construction. The district had used modular building construction for two other schools and was pleased with the results. I, on the other hand, had several concerns that needed to be addressed before the design phase was started.Modular School Interior

My primary concern was the visibility of the vertical joints between the two buildings. One architectural goal was to reduce the obvious difference between an addition and the existing building. The visibility of the vertical joints in other modular building additions I had seen had a "zipper" look, due to the brick veneer of the modular units being layered into the building façade. I was challenged to create a way to reduce the visibility of these joints.

A visit to the modular building manufacturer proved to be just the educational experience I was looking for to move forward with this project. I was to witness firsthand the various complexities of the modular product and gain an understanding of my own design abilities in working with modular building projects.

The manufacturer's assembly plant is an indoor environment for the construction of the outside end product. Unlike standard construction practices, the fabrication of the product is done in a controlled setting without regard to weather conditions.

Production can also be provided on a 24-hour schedule if necessary to meet client deadline. The fact that the building materials used in modular construction are the same as in conventional construction ensures that the modular units are solid and will not blow over in the occasional New Jersey "nor'easter."

Understanding the Modular Process

Talking with the mechanics in the factory gave me the opportunity to discuss my concerns about the visibility of the vertical joints. Joining a modular building to an existing one had certain design limitations, and my discussions with the mechanics gave me the insight I needed to consider the issue of concealed joints.

I now had a better understanding of the process, and my creative side emerged. Several design options were developed to produce concealed joints between the modular components.

One idea was to design the modular units to step in and out from one another creating a relief in the elevation of the building. The resulting corners concealed the joints on the building's façade. Another option was to design the rainwater downspout system to cover the joints. The modular manufacturer was enthusiastic and willing to examine ways to enhance their technology as we worked together to address the design possibilities.

While the modular units were being constructed, the site was being prepared to receive the finished product. The site was excavated, a foundation poured, and the steel framework erected. To face the challenge of the steep grade of the ground, the design of the modular building allowed for a split-level effect, with the main floor of the existing building equal in elevation to the second floor of the modular unit.

A newly created foyer was located between the first and second floor of the modular unit giving access to the elevator and stairs to the other levels of the existing building. The time savings of preparing both the site and the building simultaneously were valuable to the client in order to meet the deadline.

Factory-Built Buildings: A Combination of Science and Art

I learned about other key factors that affect the feasibility of modular building construction. In addition to theModular School Foyer issues of timeline, site topography, and budget, one must examine the accessibility of the route from the factory to the site. With the units being shipped on standard flatbed 15-foot by 40-foot trucks, the roads have to be able to accommodate the turning radius of the vehicle as well as bear the weight of the load. In creating the design, the 15-foot width becomes an essential element that is the basis of framing the module. Façades such as brick veneer masonry are often completed at the site to reduce the weight of the modular unit during transport.

Placing the modular building on the prepared foundation and steel framework was a combination of science and art. Large cranes lifted the building units off the truck and delicately situated them on their new home of steel and concrete. With the nearly invisible joints completed and all the added systems, such as electrical, fire, security, and HVAC connected, the building was ready for the interior design work to be done.

Ahhhhhhhhh, Success!

We had reached our goal. Paterson Public School #27 had received a seamless addition that matched the existing building, and it was completed in plenty of time for student occupancy.

Dr. DuRoy, superintendent of schools, was heard to say, "This is the best one yet!" As a result of teamwork among the planners, designers, and engineers, the finished product garnered a Modular Building Institute Award of Distinction.

The client was thrilled with the finished product, and this architect got a valuable education in modular building and its design potential. The array of possibilities in the field of modular construction becomes greater with the team efforts of the planners and designers involved.

As the modular building technology continues to advance, planners and designers are wise to examine this technology as an option when reviewing the client's needs. We can succeed only if we do not limit our thinking to the basics of a product without visualizing the product's potential.