Creating Affordable Student Housing

Modular construction is changing the notion of how building projects come together, and contain costs, ensure quality and provide a host of additional benefits that minimize the disruption to college campuses while delivering the housing needed.

By Jerry Goodwin

Jerry-Goodwin-Demand for student housing is likely to remain healthy for years to come, given the projected growth in undergraduate student enrollment. The National Center for Education Statistics expects enrollment to increase to 19.3 million students by 2026, up 14 percent from 2015. The challenge administrators face is to introduce housing that is high quality and affordable for students while working around the many time, cost, space and environmental construction constraints. Reconciling the needs of these two groups is a distinct possibility with modular construction.

Modular construction is changing the notion of how building projects come together. Traditional building sites—complete with prolonged traffic congestion and noise pollution—could become a thing of the past. With a modular approach, the majority of a building is constructed off-site, transported, positioned into place and completed at the prepared work site. This process can slash schedules, contain costs, ensure quality and provide a host of additional benefits that minimize the disruption to college campuses while delivering the housing needed.

Shortening Construction Schedules

Many areas of the country are dealing with an affordable housing crunch. Students on a tight budget are well acquainted with the issue, and university communities are under pressure to increase their supply of budget-friendly housing. Adopting a modular approach can shave months off a traditional construction schedule and get students into new units sooner.

With modular construction, a building begins to take shape even before the foundations are poured. Structures are designed to be composed of multiple identical units that are built off-site in a controlled setting with assembly-line precision. Each unit is built to exacting specifications, which can include everything from essentials like plumbing and electrical to any finishing touches, such as paint, flooring, fixtures, cabinets and appliances. By building in a climate-controlled factory environment, construction generally proceeds at a steady pace without falling victim to weather delays or impacts.

While the construction of modules is in progress, site preparation and foundation work can be completed at the construction site. This concurrent activity has the effect of compressing the construction schedule. Modules are delivered to the site only when it is ready to receive them, and then operators crane them into place. Skilled trades specializing in the electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural requirements of a modular project are employed to ensure all the proper connections are made.

Managing Budgets Better

In addition to alleviating the stress of a schedule overrun, modular construction can address another familiar construction pain: cost overrun. Throughout a construction project, numerous variables can impact costs associated with materials and labor. Fabricating modular units involves a streamlined process in a factory setting, which tends to produce less waste and offer more confidence in estimated per unit costs.

Modular building also relies on a steady and skilled factory work force that completes the bulk of construction. Labor needs at the actual building site are relatively minimal, which can help contain costs.

Furthermore, in times of tight labor markets in the construction industry, universities and their contractors are at less risk of experiencing delays caused by a shortage of workers or of getting caught off guard by higher wages that can be demanded.

Ensuring Quality Throughout

Inside and out, completed modular student housing communities look and function no differently than housing built using conventional methods. Modular builders even have an advantage with their factory operations, which lend themselves to the implementation of regular quality control and inspection measures that could be difficult to replicate on a work site. As a result, they can offer final products of consistent and high quality.

Like any new structure, a modular development must meet exacting building codes and standards. All projects are thoroughly reviewed by state and local building inspectors, which provides universities and their student residents with confidence regarding quality, safety and comfort.

Reaping Additional Benefits

For students, living in a university community is part of the college experience, and the quality of life on campus can be impacted by inconveniences associated with drawn-out construction projects. Turning to a modular approach, universities can keep much of those inconveniences at bay. Some modular builders estimate that anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of a project can be built off-site. For college students—as well as their educators—that can translate into less noise, traffic, dust and disruption infringing on daily life. And, thanks to the shorter amount of time required on site, campus life can resume its normal activity sooner than it would with a conventionally built housing project.

Finally, green building practices are often sought after by universities, and modular builders are well positioned to deliver. The assembly-line process at the heart of this method tends to result in low waste and offer opportunities to implement energy-efficient practices. Further, student housing projects can specify eco-friendly materials and elements throughout a design to achieve sustainability goals.

Focusing on the Future

As colleges and universities tackle how to house their growing populations, modular builders provide the forward-thinking solution that works for students and administrators. The advantages are hard to ignore—greater time efficiency, savings on labor costs, consistent quality, reduced disruption and sustainable construction—and add up to the ideal product for new and affordable university housing.

Jerry Goodwin is the president and CEO of Guerdon Modular Buildings, the leading manufacturer of large-scale, commercial modular construction projects in the Western United States and Canada.

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