The United States is not the trendsetter that the rest of the world always thinks it is. While America introduced the world to disco music and pet rocks, the country has not warmed up to the European idea of modular construction we previously wrote about this here. To many Americans, modular construction is a cheap and ineffective way to build something, and most commercial developers prefer to avoid it.
Many of the knocks against modular construction may have been earned as it made its debut as modular residential construction in the United States, but those times are changing. Modular manufacturers are now working with contractors to make sure that all projects meet local building codes, and the materials being used in modular construction have improved dramatically over the years.
How far has residential modular construction come over the years? After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, FEMA reported that the modular homes in the area generally withstood the weather better than the homes made using traditional construction. If modular homes made decades ago can withstand intense hurricane force winds, then it is safe to say that the modern modular homes are worth looking into for the American consumer.
Commercial Developers Are Slower To Adopt Modular Construction
The idea of having a commercial property built in a factory and then put together on a job site is still not very appealing to commercial developers. This despite the fact that modular construction cuts down on material transportation costs, building time, and the needed manpower. One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the myriad of building codes attached to commercial structures and how those codes change from place to place.However, there is a project going on in New York City that modular companies are hoping will change everyone’s minds.
CitizenM Modular Development Project In New York City
One of the largest modular commercial construction developers in the world is a company called citizenM, which is a decidedly European name. CitizenM is working with a Polish modular construction company to build a 300-room hotel at 185 Bowery in New York City. The first three floors of the project are made using traditional construction methods, but the remaining 17 floors will be modular.
The entire modular part of the hotel will be shipped to New York City from Poland in 210 pieces, and then re-assembled in place at the job site. By using modular construction, citizenM says it will shave three to four months off of construction time, and cut down the number of material deliveries by an astounding 1,200. Any construction expert can immediately see the cost and time savings in those numbers, but the skeptics are still going to be watching closely.
The CitizenM hotel is the largest modular hotel to be built in New York City at this point, but it is not the only one. The developers of the Pod Brooklyn 249-room hotel expect to open around April 2017, and they estimate that they saved 15 percent on overall construction costs by using modular methods. With the success of Pod Brooklyn and the anticipated success of the citizenM hotel, American commercial modular construction companies are hoping to have two cornerstone projects they can point to for furthering modular construction in the U.S.
What Are The Benefits Of Modular Commercial Construction?
Since modular construction can be done faster, developers can work on more projects in a specified period of time. The production costs offer their own benefits, but the associated costs savings such as lower vehicle and equipment rental costs are also appealing. Modular construction also tends to disrupt neighborhoods and commercial business complexes less than traditional construction. The lack of normal construction disruption means that communities would be more supportive of modular projects, and that kind of community support can be vital in getting a project completed on time.
Fewer truck deliveries to a construction site mean less wear and tear on delivery trucks, less traffic on the roads, and less harmful fumes being released into the atmosphere. The list of benefits to modular construction, both direct and indirect, could go on for a very long time. But there are reasons why residential modular construction only made up 1.5 percent of all home construction in 2014, and why commercial developers are so slow to sign on.
The Challenges With Commercial Modular Construction
High-rise commercial construction using modular methods can get expensive. Not only will it be difficult to find cranes that can reach the heights developers will need to reach in areas such as Manhattan that prefer to build up instead of out, but the modular pieces themselves will need to be reinforced to withstand the crane movements. Once you start raising the cost of modular construction because of reinforcing the pieces, you start to take away the allure of Europe’s construction invention.
The other issue for modular construction remains its image. Commercial developers simply do not like the idea of using a construction method that has a reputation for being unreliable and unpredictable. While proponents of the modular construction industry insist that the old image of modular construction is ancient history, commercial construction developers are still not convinced that modular is the way to go.
Outlook Towards Affordable Housing
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is a strong proponent of building affordable housing units in all five New York City boroughs, but his ideas have started to run into funding problems. With wages going up and tax incentives fading in and out, rising building costs are starting to make de Blasio’s dream fade into the sunset.
CitizenM and other modular developers hope that the success of the two new modular hotels in New York City will show the mayor and the rest of the city council that modular construction is a viable alternative for building affordable housing. If modular construction can truly cut down on time and costs for affordable housing projects, then the city may have found the solution it has been looking for when it comes to economic issues with de Blasio’s program. But modular developers will still have to find ways to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and existing construction arrangements that keep affordable housing projects in the realm of traditional construction.
Can The European Model Translate To The U.S.?
The idea of constructing a building in a factory and then assembling it like Legos at a job site has become extremely popular in Europe. The modular construction process saves money and time, and it also tends to be much more environmentally friendly than traditional construction. CitizenM has already opened nine modular hotels around the world and is building 14 more, including the one in New York City. But the largest commercial modular developer in the world is still finding it difficult to make inroads in the United States.
CitizenM is banding together with American modular commercial developers and manufacturers to try and use their hotel as a showpiece for just how efficient and effective modular construction can be. For the first part of the project, citizenM will rely on traditional construction methods that the city has seen for decades. But when the 210 modular pieces start going into place, the entire city will be watching to see just how the project finishes.
The future of commercial modular construction in the United States does not necessarily hinge on CitizenM’s project. But if there ever was a city that could use a cheaper way to build residential and commercial structures, then that city would be New York.