Development - September 2008

Think Modular Over the years, we’ve heard a lot from urban planners about the importance of directing “smart growth.” Well into the 21st century, we are discovering that the making or re-making of urban areas and in-filling commercial spaces to meet our growing population presents numerous set-backs. Those range from the effects of the energy crisis to sky-rocketing material costs with the lack of a reliably consistent workforce for construction to the environmental impacts of every aspect of construction, as well as the constraints of construction in a locked urban space. Smart growth has been redefined across south Louisiana in the post-Katrina era to include more than the direction we grow in. How do we build stronger, faster, less expensively and more energy efficient? I think the answer for our needs for commercial real estate is to build modular.

You’re in the majority if, when you read or hear the words “modular” or “manufactured,” you automatically think of the exact opposite of what I am proposing. Let’s look at the matter of modular construction, an advanced form of facility construction in which a structure is built in three-dimensional sections (or modules) in an enclosed factory environment. But commercial modular construction has a much different meaning and look than it had even five years ago. Formerly, modular buildings were constructed to much different standards than “traditional” site-built construction, and it was evident. Today modular space is constructed with the same standards, quality and look of site-built construction and can be built to suit a variety of needs and budgets.

In order to move forward with commercial applications utilizing modular construction, this type of construction will need to get beyond the many myths associated with modular. The first myth and most difficult is that modular construction equals low quality; in most cases it’s is generally stronger and higher quality than conventional methods. Commercial modular structures are built to the same local building codes as their stick-built counterparts. Additionally, modular builders have quality-assurance programs in place to guarantee that production standards, methods, and materials have continuity. In fact, most states require that the building manufacturer have an approved quality-assurance program and that it be monitored by an accredited, third-party agency. These third-party agencies make inspections on both the modular builder’s plant and the building under construction. Where a third-party agency is not a local requirement, building department officials and/or certifying engineers typically assume the same inspection role. In the Acadiana region, LA System Built Homes in St. Martinville has demonstrated that it goes above and beyond minimum building codes and meets the fortified requirements set by the Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit research organization supported by the insurance industry to reduce property losses. What this means is that the buildings are stronger and held to a higher quality standards than your typical conventional building methods.

The next myth to dispel is that you are limited to only a few design choices and building shapes when choosing modular construction. When you build modular, you are able to select from numerous different design combinations including building types and shapes, exterior facades, roof lines, and also have the option to include any of the traditional finishes you might expect from traditional site-built construction. There are limitless possibilities to building types from apartment buildings, banks, schools, restaurants, office buildings etc. You are able to build any configuration of space and have virtually any design and exterior or interior finish. Building exteriors range from steal siding to brick veneers, from wood panel designs to stucco treatments. Your options are limited only by your budget, but the key advantage for modular construction is that it takes about half the time for delivery.

The last myth to touch on is that modular buildings diminish the need for local contractors. This is far from true. Although 50 percent of construction does take place in a factory-controlled environment, contractors will always be needed to handle on-site preparation, foundations and utilities. Once the modular is completed in the factory, the individual modules are then shipped to the construction site for final installation to be completed by the contractor. Louisiana System Built Homes relishes the opportunity to work with local contractors.  You cannot have one without the other. The end result is a facility can be occupied more quickly than with conventional construction, and when buildings are occupied sooner, clients start producing revenue more quickly and contractors are able to produce more buildings in a shorter period of time. That means increased profits.

There are a few different projects considering this type of construction — from downtown to the Oil Center and areas in south Lafayette. If even one of these projects takes off, this could prove to be the new face of commercial construction in Lafayette.

Lafayette native Jim Keaty is the owner of Keaty Real Estate, a full-service firm he founded in 2004.