Modular Construction Marches Forward as a Model for Student Housing

by Katie Sloan

The student housing industry can take some building tips from the military.

Military dormitories typically conjure imagery of bomb-shelter-like structures with bunk-bed-packed rooms. That’s a Hollywood depiction, but it’s far from reality. Today’s modern military dormitories are designed to mirror more of the comforts of home and they offer amenities akin to those enjoyed by many students who live on college campuses.

As a construction services company with more than 100 years of combined construction experience, Warrior Group has seen the level of excellence that permanent modular construction and hybrid construction — conventional site built construction and modular–brings to military housing projects.  Warrior Group offers high-quality projects constructed in a shorter time than is typical, accelerated deadlines are met; labor resources are reduced, and safety and sustainability are increased.

Those same advantages are realized in student housing. Shorter timelines for construction allows colleges and universities to meet deadlines associated with semester schedules. The method also allows revenue to be captured from rents, rather than losing students due to a lack of housing. Off-site construction and a faster completion also mean less disruption on campus and it is uniquely suited for tight construction sites.

The Construction Process
First, design teams are selected to develop a building layout. Once the product is designed to the client’s specific needs and expectations, production begins. One main component – and benefit­­ – of permanent modular construction is the use of the Parallel Construction process, where both on- and off-site work is performed simultaneously, instead of sequentially as is done in conventional construction. Since all or part of the structure arrives pre-constructed and ready to be installed, there is minimal on-site staging of materials.

When site preparation and foundations are complete, the manufactured units arrive on trucks. Each “unit” is set by crane and joined with the next at the “mate line” and the units are finished out.

Construction time is approximately one-third less than traditional construction and, in our experience, that allows builders to earn a return on their investment sooner and to minimize exposure to risks.

Design & Accommodation
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions in the construction industry is that modular construction is limited to a “one-story box.”  In fact, permanent modular construction has evolved into a process highly capable of creating full-scale, complex buildings and housing. More and more architects are recognizing this and they are embracing modern-day modular design that offers durability, life span and appearance that rivals conventional construction.

Dr. Jorge Vanegas, dean of the Texas A & M College of Architecture, says those who believe modular is capable of nothing more than building rectangular boxes are misguided.

“I would tell any design professional … who may dismiss modular construction because they feel it limits design, that, in my opinion, it is the other way around,” Vanegas said. “Not exploring alternative techniques and processes such as prefabrication, preassembly, modularization and off-site fabrication actually limit design more.”

Modular is capable of responding to a variety of architectural design specifications. Warrior Group has produced military residences ranging from Fort Sam Houston’s four-story mixed use, complexes in San Antonio, Texas, with a design reminiscent of high-end condos, to 11, two-story permanent modular dormitories complete with private sleeping rooms at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

Yale University used modular design in the construction of a new dormitory in 2004. They were able to design the dorm to blend into the landscape of historic buildings on that campus, featuring custom brickwork in turn-of-the-century style, stone copings at the stair tower parapets and a pitched slate roof. The interiors featured marble showers and terrazzo shower basins in the custom baths.

Building with a need for speed
Another crucial advantage of modular construction over traditional methods is the ability to deliver high-quality buildings at a rapid pace. The modular process can help universities meet semester-driven deadlines and growing population demands.

Using modular construction, Warrior Group installed 11 buildings at Fort Bliss – approximately 500,000 square feet of housing– in only six months. Each building contained small apartments comprised of private sleeping rooms, a shared kitchen and bath units for two troops per unit.

The short timetable in which modular projects are completed minimizes campus disruptions, an important consideration for university officials. Additionally, the units are primarily manufactured in a factory-controlled environment allowing units to remain clean and dry, minimizing delays due to inclement weather.

It’s Easy Being Green
Permanent modular construction is a new way of “going green” that will continue to evolve and impact building design. The option to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is inherent in the permanent modular construction process.

Studies have shown that modular methods of construction offer considerable sustainability value and benefits over conventional construction, including:

• Units are developed in a plant, diminishing the impact of waste materials on the construction area is decreased.

• The controlled environment of the plant makes it easier to keep everything clean, which means no contaminants.

• Recyclable products — such as carpet and wood — are used. Timber is considered a sustainable resource.

• Less vehicular movement at the construction site means less site impact, carbon emissions and noise.

•Remnants of recyclable products are recycled.  This dramatically decreases the amount of waste dumped in landfills.

Safety First
Campus housing builders can learn from the military’s incorporation of cutting-edge safety features into its housing design.
In meeting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Antiterrorist Force Protection requirements, Warrior Group incorporated the progressive collapse prevention feature into barracks at Fort Bliss I El Paso, TX, Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and military residences at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. These buildings are structurally sound and built to sustain the high level of activity.

Multiple studies have analyzed modular projects in-depth, documenting their benefits and value. The success we’ve experienced with military housing is a testament to the advantages modular construction can provide in student housing.

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