Going Green With Modular Construction

Across the country, modular, ICF, and precast construction are becoming increasingly common elements of the campus scene. In fact, listening to those closest to the industry might lead you to believe that this is the greatest development since the Romans perfected concrete. But as its use grows in popularity on campuses around the country, it’s obvious that modular and related construction do hold real advantages.

Along with convenience and some impressive quality standards, the modular approach to construction also offers features that should appeal to the environmentally conscious.

With modular construction, reduced waste and energy conservation are major considerations. Not only do manufacturers rely heavily on recycling during the initial creation of modular products, but there also tends to be less waste at the site of installation than with traditional building methods, as well as energy efficiency once buildings go online.

“Modular construction of whatever type can contribute to a green goal,” says John Diffenderfer, principal, AEDIS Architecture & Planning in San Jose, CA. “Several manufacturers have developed products that are compatible with LEED or CHPS standards, and can achieve net zero status.”

He adds that by its very nature, the manufacturing process lends itself to the most efficient use of materials and a greater control of build quality.

“As a designer, I miss the complete control over the entire planning and design process, but in the 21st century there are greater things at stake,” Diffenderfer says. “Modular construction can contribute significantly to a more sustainably run campus.”
Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Building Institute in Charlottesville, VA, says that the modular factory-controlled process generates less waste, creates fewer site disturbances, and allows for tighter construction.

“Green and energy-efficient features are very easily incorporated in to modular construction,” he says. “Many would say it is inherently greener.”

Examples of recent campus projects include:
  • Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, has constructed four residence halls using insulated concrete forms from NUDURA, a manufacturer with facilities in North America and the U.K. Construction has totaled over 115,000 sq. ft. of forms in four housing structures, and college officials have been pleased with the results, according to Todd Blyth, NUDURA’s international marketing manager.
  • In a project at the University of Florida in Gainesville, precast concrete wall panels were complemented with the use of thin-brick. The results included saving 1,150 tons of mined clay — enough material to clad four other similar-sized buildings, reports Brian Miller, managing director of business development for the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI), headquartered in Chicago. He says the approach saved approximately 12,000 gal. of diesel fuel. It also reduced construction time and preserved the look and feel of the building while utilizing a more sustainable solution.
  • Construction projects at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC; the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse; and Weatherford College in Decatur, TX, have also contributed to campus sustainability efforts with modular, ICF, or precast construction.

Limiting Waste, Saving Energy
The main innovation of modular construction is that it takes most of the construction process off the building site and puts it into a controlled factory environment, according to Jim Snyder, director of operations for Warrior Group Inc., a Texas-based contractor with extensive experience in the use of off-site prefabrication.

“The factory-based, lean manufacturing and construction methods used in permanent modular construction dramatically reduce the amount of construction waste,” he says. “With the ability to engineer a precise construction process, nearly all of the construction waste is eliminated or recycled.”

As one example, insulated concrete forms such as those produced by NUDURA are made of recycled materials as well as themselves being 100-percent recyclable.

“The result is less waste sent to our landfills,” Blyth says.

Energy conservation may also be significant. Once in place, modular construction materials can offer substantial energy savings. Precast concrete, for example, has thermal mass and can provide continuous, edge-to-edge insulation, according to Miller.

“When these are combined, they result in a very energy-efficient and durable wall system,” he says. “Some projects have reported a reduction in energy consumption of 30 percent relevant to the baseline energy code.”

Appeal to Campus Constituencies
Along with advantages that may apply virtually anywhere, modular construction may fit especially well in higher education settings.

“It’s an excellent choice for a college and university campus expansion,” Snyder says.

“Because fewer materials and construction personnel are needed on site and the construction footprint is smaller, it is ideal for a tight building site adjacent to existing structures. The faster construction timeline also means that the unavoidable disruptions and inconveniences of major construction are over sooner, and the work can often be completed over the summer break when the campus population is smaller.”

An interesting possibility is that such construction can also be used to supplement instructional activities.

“The hot topic in higher education today is green jobs,” Diffenderfer says. “There is a pretty strong push to expand the value of capital expenditure, and at two- and four-year colleges, that means making the facilities into silent teachers.”

He says that construction projects based on green technology and related processes and business cases can be made accessible as part of the ongoing curriculum.

“A manufactured building system can provide learning opportunities for all of a college’s programs — from design, to engineering, to business administration,” he says. “Bring on the interns!” 

Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in higher education and business topics.

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