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Modular Construction for Architects, Engineers & Design Professionals

Interested in designing modular buildings? Join the Modular Building Institute today to get connected with modular architects and designers from around the world, plus gain access to MBI's full range of valuable member benefits, including event discounts, marketing and project promotion, awards, and thought leadership opportunities.

As public and private organizations continue to turn toward modular buildings for the many benefits they provide, architects and engineers are being increasingly called upon to design buildings that will be built using prefabricated or modular construction. As the world's largest trade association for the commercial modular construction industry, the Modular Building Institute (MBI) has a wide range of resources available to educate architects and engineers who want to learn more about designing modular buildings.

Don't Miss Out on the Latest Resources from MBI!

MBI's weekly e-newsletter, MBI Updates, includes new modular construction articles and interviews, case studies, educational opportunities, industry events, resources, and more.

Stay connected and stay informed with MBI Updates.

Design Guide for Modular Construction

In 2019, MBI worked with the American Institute of Architects to help develop a new guideline called “Modular and Off-Site Construction Guide.” This Guide serves as a primer on the modular approach for architects and includes:

  • Value and opportunities of modular design
  • Pitfalls designers should be wary of
  • Case studies that exemplify successes and obstacles

Featuring interviews and input from architects and modular building experts around the country, this AIA resource is an outstanding primer for architects and design professionals interested in designing for modular construction.

The Architect's Role in the Modular Building Process

While the architect’s role in a construction project is critical to its overall success, the process for modular building design is different than that of traditional building projects. The decision to utilize modular construction should be made prior to design and should factor in the following considerations:

  • Three-dimensional modules have widths that are typically nominal eight, 10, 12, 14, and 16 feet, with 12 and 14 feet being the most common. Framing dimensions are typically two inches less than nominal size.
  • Module lengths are up to seventy feet, usually in two feet increments.
  • Module heights vary from approximately eleven feet, six inches to thirteen feet, not including the height of the unit’s transport trailer or frame.
  • Wood-frame construction is the most common type of construction; however, manufacturers also build with steel and concrete and can meet the requirements for Type-I, -II, and -III construction
  • Multi-story modular buildings can be built up to the maximum stories allowed by code. While most modular buildings are one- to four-stories, a growing number of projects have exceeded 10-stories in recent years, including a 32-story project in New York.
  • Restroom areas should be designed so that a module “marriage line” does not split the space.
  • Multiple roof-framing styles are available. Some can be completed in the factory, and some may require the installation of trusses on-site.
  • Modular buildings can be configured using modules of various lengths and widths.
  • Design elements need to be decided earlier in the process (paint color, for example) as the off-site construction process begins and is completed more quickly.
Structural volumetric modular solutions for homeless shelters from ModularDesign+

Design for modular buildings, like these examples from MBI member ModularDesign+, can range from highly intricate to very simple, depending on the needs of the project. Whatever the design, it must be finalized prior to the start of manufacturing.

Modular Architects in Their Own Words

MBI's Inside Modular podcast explores the entire process of modular construction through interviews with industry experts. Recent interviews have included:

Inside Moxy Oakland: The Bay Area's Newest Multi-Level Modular Hotel w/ Lowney Architecture

Ken Lowney, president and CEO of Lowney Architecture, discusses the design and construction of Oakland's newest hotel, Moxy Oakland Downtown. This award-winning project is the first modular development for Moxy Hotels. Ken talks about the hotel itself, some of the challenges his team faced during the building's construction, and how he was able to leverage its modular design to create a unique rooftop lounge.

Ken also discusses his team's long history with modular construction and shares his advice for young architects looking to get started with modular building design.

Designing One of the Nation's Largest Modular Multifamily Housing Structures w/ Cuningham

Dave Stahl, associate AIA and principal at Cuningham, joins MBI's Inside Modular podcast to discuss the design of Pentagon Village Apartments, a 244,000-sqft rental community in Minnesota which is on track to become one of the largest volumetric modular multifamily developments in the country. Dave talks about how his designs evolved from the project's inception, how the building's modular construction influenced the façade, and his team's goals for the project in general.

Dave also gives advice to designers entering the industry and looks ahead to the possible modular design trends of the next few years..

Best Practices for Modular Building Designers

Once the scope of the project is understood, architect Eric Parnell says it is important to understand any and all codes and/or ordinances that need to be followed.

"Local codes and ordinances are another area to research and pre-plan to comply or work with local authorities to ensure a smooth project. Local codes and ordinances can vary wildly by different jurisdictions and can include setback restrictions, location of occupancy restrictions, exterior finish requirements, and even an outright ban on modular construction (as discussed earlier). To avoid endless delays and issues, a meeting with local authorities to discuss the plans and to show that a custom modular does not resemble a ‘traditional portable building’ can ensure the process can move forward before being offered to a client.”

Eric Parnell, architect and founder, ArchBoutant LLC

Once it is time for to begin construction, architect Nick Gomez underscores the need for a finalized design.

“It is essential to establish a design freeze using a modular construction approach because of the factory production schedule and process. Design changes late in the process can be costly and require permit drawings modification and impact factory shop drawings. Unlike traditional construction processes, up-front decision-making and design freezes are critical for the modular construction processes, leaving little time in the schedule for alterations.”

Nick Gomez, Principal, Director of Modular Design & Construction, AO

During the construction phase, architect Kendra Halliwell recommends spending time at the factory to ensure compliance and to see the process firsthand.

“The Architect/Engineers of Record and contractor/installers on site are ultimately responsible for closeout and affidavits. Our General Contractor maintained oversight of the boxes in the factory during construction, with observation from the representative of the state review board. The mechanical contractors also visited the factory, so they were aware of exactly what was coming to the site. Additionally, visiting the factory allowed the team to see the benefits of modular construction firsthand: construction jobs are created in a safe, controlled work environment, with less waste and no exposure to weather.”

Kendra Halliwell, AIA, LEED-H AP, Associate Principal, Practice + Design Team Leader, ICON Architecture

Recommended Articles & Resources for Modular Architects

Samantha Taylor: Leading the (Modular) Design of Tomorrow

“With modern technology and the way we’ve all embraced things like BIM, file sharing, and video conferencing since COVID, it’s easy to collaborate with companies in Austria, or Singapore, or anywhere else in the world.”

Greg DeLeon: Military Engineering to Modular Design

Greg DeLeon, a structural engineer at ISE Structural Engineers in Temecula, California, can tell you not only how large a beam needs to be to support a house, but also how much explosives you’ll need to take it down, thanks to his unique combination of professional and military experience.

Jamie Metzger: From Construction to Apparel and Back Again

Growing up in a blue-collar city like Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, it’s no surprise that Jamie Metzger spent some time working labor jobs on construction sites. It’s one of the most common summer jobs in the city. But that’s probably the last predictable thing about this particular story.

How to Fail at Delivering a Modular Project

Success can involve challenges, but it often provides valuable experiences that can be replicated in future endeavors. Failures can be categorized into two types: those that transform into successes through perseverance, and those that are resolved during the project but serve as valuable lessons to avoid in the future. Here are a few to avoid on your next project:

Fire Station 67

Fire Station 67 is designed in direct response to the climate crisis, the increasing threat of wildfires, and the needs to the Rancho Mission Viejo community. Prefabricated off-site and assembled from 10 modules, the 4,667-square-foot fire station is a modular design with the ability to reconfigure the structure into something new in the future.

Repetition, Communication, and Coordination: A QSR Case Study

This modular QSR project seemed like any another modular building on the surface. Inside, it was anything but. The rhythm, the desire to iterate and repeat, and the constant communication between all parties made it stand out.

Modular Architecture: Thinking Outside of the Box with Sara.Ann Logan

At a time when modular buildings were still seen as less than by many in the architecture and construction world, Sara.Ann Logan took the plunge and partnered to launch a design-build firm that designed, built, and constructed modular high-end single-family homes. But even though she could see the value of this kind of construction, it wasn’t universally accepted.

UNB OCRC Student Competition Crowns 2023 Offsite Construction Design Contest Winners

For the third year in a row, the University of New Brunswick’s Off-Site Construction Research Centre presented its Off-site Construction Student Design Competition. This competition—presented again by the Modular Building Institute (MBI)—showcased student design innovation in modular, prefabricated, panelized, and other types of off-site construction and featured entries from dozens of interdisciplinary collegiate teams across Canada.

Modular Hotel Room Prototype Shows Global Investors the Speed and Versatility of Modular Building

Forta PRO, a modular building manufacturer in Latvia, recently partnered with Marriott to create a modular hotel room based on their current design, Moxy. The two connected in Copenhagen in 2019, when Marriott expressed an interest in creating a mock-up to show investors the quality available through modular construction techniques. The stand-alone room is currently located in Frankfurt and is available for investors to visit.

The Envelope Insulation Design Regarding Material Alteration Compatibility in Blast-Resistant Modular Buildings

BRM envelope insulation configuration has impacts on construction schedule time, potential redesign workload, and market competitiveness, which are all critical to the success of a BRM project.

From a Basement Office to a Team of Modular Experts

Starting from his basement office 17 years ago, Dean Dalvit leveraged his professional training in both architecture and engineering to develop EVstudio into a fully integrated architecture and engineering firm. Now with over 120 staff members in four offices, including two in Colorado, one in Boise, Idaho, and one in Austin, Texas, the firm is a regional design powerhouse.

Roland Brown Looks Back at His Story of Success in the Modular Construction Industry

Roland Brown never imagined his life would turn out this way. He retired from a nearly 50-year-long career, starting off as a draftsman in the mobile home industry to becoming the VP of Design and Development at Ramtech Building Systems, Inc., a design/build construction company in Mansfield, Texas with its own modular
manufacturing facility.

Is Modular + Scattered Sites a Solution to the Affordable Housing Crisis?

Dean Dovolis of DJR Architecture is turning the worlds of modular construction and affordable housing on their heads. Instead of stacking modules to create one building, he’s using them to build 16 buildings on 16 different sites, all on the same production run. And he’s partnering with a public agency to do it.

What’s Next: UNB OCRC Student Competition Previews the Future of Offsite Building

That modular building hasn’t already gained more U.S. market share is a source of bewilderment to many. Though the technology has been around for more than 70 years, modular building in the U.S. has never gained as solid a foothold as it has in other societies. But it’s time may finally be here.

G-Pod Americas Designs Modular Buildings for the Future

That modular building hasn’t already gained more U.S. market share is a source of bewilderment to many. Though the technology has been around for more than 70 years, modular building in the U.S. has never gained as solid a foothold as it has in other societies. But it’s time may finally be here.

Ingenious System Assembles Buildings with Concrete Superstructure in Weeks

That modular building hasn’t already gained more U.S. market share is a source of bewilderment to many. Though the technology has been around for more than 70 years, modular building in the U.S. has never gained as solid a foothold as it has in other societies. But it’s time may finally be here.

ReMo Homes: Building Futuristic Homes for the Present

That modular building hasn’t already gained more U.S. market share is a source of bewilderment to many. Though the technology has been around for more than 70 years, modular building in the U.S. has never gained as solid a foothold as it has in other societies. But it’s time may finally be here.

Vertical Engineering: Inside the World’s Tallest Modular Building with MJH Structural Engineers’ Michael Hough

“101 George Street has moved modular into the realm of skyscrapers and is achieving recognition alongside some of the world’s most amazing new tall buildings,” says Michael Hough.

Designing for a Sustainable—and Modular—Future

A conversation with Stuart Cameron, Managing Director and MMC Lead at SCMS Associates/The HIve Group, about the current state of modular and offsite construction in the UK.

A New Off-Site Standard in the Works: Energy Efficiency, Water Conservation and MEP Systems

If owner/developers start by thinking offsite construction is simply traditional construction with a factory, they have it backwards. Here’s the correct way to start.

Learn More with the Modular Building Institute

With a plethora of industry events, webinars, online resources, and a quickly growing international membership that represents architects, designers, and every other specialty within the commercial modular construction industry, the Modular Building Institute is the world's leading association of modular construction professionals. Join MBI today to take advantage of all our member benefits and take your modular design career to the next level.