Blog / Focus: New Construction

Healthcare Projects Benefiting From Modular Construction

By Christopher Perruna / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
September 1, 2020

A discussion about technology in healthcare usually focuses on innovations which either enhance the patient experience (think interactive displays, electronic health records, or health-tracking apps) or improve healthcare delivery (such as surgical robots or augmented reality-driven visualization tools).

Another new technology which probably won’t make the top 10 list of emerging healthcare tools, but which is already having a huge impact on healthcare, is modular construction. Modular what?

Modular construction refers to a technology-driven, offsite construction approach in which individual construction components (walls, facings, etc.) are prefabricated in a factory, transported to the worksite entirely (or mostly) complete, and assembled on location. Combining virtual reality immersive experiences with data to help build highly customized interior spaces, modular construction dramatically shortens construction schedules because elements are manufactured offsite at the same time as construction onsite is occurring.

Why is a construction method impacting healthcare? Studies by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others indicate that modular construction increases productivity, safety, efficiency, and quality. Just as important, modular construction translates into reductions in cost, risk, material waste and construction times. 

Modular walls enable easier reconfiguration to adapt to new technologies, design elements, or spatial requirements during construction or in the future. Integrated walls provide quick access to technology when hardware needs to be updated or serviced. Front or back faces can easily be opened, eliminating the mess associated with traditional drywall construction or the need to bring in outside contractors. 

In short, modular construction means faster, cleaner installations, minimized downtime, and perhaps most important, cost savings, particularly when compared to conventional construction methods. At a time when rising costs, shrinking budgets, and shortened timelines are radically changing the healthcare industry, anything that translates into savings is a plus. 

That all sounds good on paper, but it begs the question: Does modular construction really make a difference? And even if it does, why does it seem to be so applicable to healthcare settings?

To answer both questions, let’s look at an example based on several real-world construction projects. Perhaps more than any other space, healthcare facilities find themselves in constant need of interior rehabs. This results from a number of factors, from adapting current space to accommodate rapidly changing healthcare technologies to simple market demands to provide patients with various amenities, usually to keep pace with healthcare competitors.

This is particularly true of older healthcare facilities, many of which have been in existence for 60 years or more, or facilities originally constructed for another purpose (such as the former shell space that was built for retail, but is now home to walk-in care, urgent care, doctors’ offices, and more as healthcare facilities become a staple in numerous former shopping center storefronts).

In handling an extensive rehab of such spaces, a head-to-head cost comparison of conventional construction methods vs. modular construction typically shows the latter approach costing slightly more. Because modular construction can be done offsite at the same time onsite activity is taking place, though, the prefab approach routinely shaves several weeks off the construction schedule. Saving just 5% on that construction schedule would allow the space to be occupied sooner, enabling the occupant to move in and begin generating revenue faster. 

When these schedule savings are added to the other advantages modular construction provides – a more durable, higher quality product, greater flexibility which enables construction changes to be incorporated live, a significantly cleaner installation, and elimination of onsite safety concerns – the slightly higher cost of a modular system is more than offset by the promise of a faster, more sustainable end-product.

As anyone who has ever been involved with a construction project can tell you, all of that sounds great in theory, but what about the construction delays that inevitably occur? Regardless of how simple or complicated, virtually every construction project brings with it a variety of challenges that aren’t obvious until construction gets underway.

Here is where modular construction truly shines. Rather than holding up progress on construction while waiting weeks for parts, pieces, labor, and so on, modular construction enables issues to be addressed as they arise and adjustments to be made immediately. Doing so enables work onsite to continue unabated while specific components were custom-manufactured offsite. That, in turn, allows the construction process to remain on time and on budget.  

The modular construction approach also provides an opportunity to introduce several innovations along the way. Let’s say, for example, that once construction is underway, a change is needed in the way a wall or ceiling is going to be constructed. Normally, introducing a modification like that during construction not only would be costly, but also would likely have a significant impact on the construction schedule. By using a modular approach which allows the modification to be tested and verified offsite, however, the design change can be quickly executed with little or no impact on costs or the construction schedule. 

Just as important, a modular approach enables occupants to easily adapt the space to accommodate changes that inevitably will be needed in the future. Rather than having to halt the occupants’ normal workload in order to rehab the space to meet new requirements, changes can be designed and then manufactured offsite, transported to the site, and then assembled on location – all of which produces a flexible, cost-effective solution which allows the space to remain functional long-term, significantly outlasting building cycles.   

Modular walls, for example, allow for easy reconfiguration to adapt to new technology, design elements, or spatial requirements. Integrated walls provide quick access to technology when hardware needs to be updated or serviced. Front or back faces can easily be opened, eliminating the mess associated with traditional drywall construction or the need to bring in an outside contractor. As a result, downtime is minimized.   

If modular construction has so many benefits, why aren’t more healthcare facilities using it? According to the Commercial Construction Index released in August 2019, lack of use simply comes down to lack of awareness. More than 70% of general contractors surveyed admit their reason for not using modular construction is that their clients aren’t asking for it and architects aren’t designing for it.

This situation is changing, however, as more healthcare executives recognize that their facilities need to be agile in order to remain relevant. Bottom line: a modular approach allows new processes to be adapted, new technologies to be seamlessly added, and physical spaces to be adjusted whenever data suggests that change is warranted. 

Christopher Perruna is Vice President of Construction Solutions at dancker, an interior solutions firm. For more information, visit www.forbuild.com.

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