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Utilizing Prefab Modular Solutions

Save Money, Shorten the Schedule, and Increase Sustainability with Prefab Modular Solutions


One of the best traits that an architect or designer can have is to embrace curiosity and continue learning. As the world continues to change, technological advancements are helping to address how we design, build, and live. We’ve increasingly seen a need to design for flexibility – not only for a variety of tenants, but also for accessibility, housing requirements, and environmental factors. While many architects may not consider modular construction due to some preconceived misconceptions, we pride ourselves on finding creative solutions for our clients.

Each building that we design is a well-crafted thought exercise, keeping the client, end user, environment and cost in mind as key factors (among a host of others – The Art of Balance). When pressed with scheduling, budgeting and design challenges, we are more inclined to rethink the problem rather than implementing the typical solution.

During the design process for a new 136-unit multi-family project at 50 Rogers St. in Cambridge (soon to be Prism Apartments), we knew accelerated delivery and adherence to the budget were important to our client and our contractor, Consigli Construction. To achieve this, our team decided that incorporating prefabricated (prefab) elements into this project would be a win-win on both fronts. After assessing multiple options, we ultimately decided to incorporate prefab modular bathrooms. Bathrooms are a popular and easily integrated prefab modular element as they’re manufactured in a controlled environment, precut and precise.

Let’s start by tackling some common misconceptions about prefab modular solutions. One of the first that is brought up is a sacrifice of craftsmanship quality. It is often assumed that something prefab has an assembly-line like or commodity product association to it. Admittedly, this was our biggest hesitation in implementing this design option too, and one that needed to be assuaged in searching for the right partner. We needed to be able to have control over both the design and selection of details and fixtures that met our standards and expectations. After months of diligent research, our team landed on SurePods, a leading provider of prefabricated bathroom solutions with company roots in Concord, Massachusetts. In reviewing their portfolio of work for hotels, we realized that they could be a solution for our multi-family housing project. While visiting their production facility in Orlando, Florida, we were able to witness the immense level of care with which the SurePods team approaches each product, and their intensive quality assurance measures taken throughout all stages of production, from when raw materials enter the facility through assembly. Fixtures such as floor tiles are laid by hand, with careful inspection of grout to ensure smooth, even surfaces. Before shipping the bathrooms to the construction site, each unit was carefully wrapped, packed and labeled to ensure protection in-transit and feasibility of offloading once onsite.

A second misconception regarding prefab solutions is that there is compromise of design, which we didn’t find to be the case. Actually the only design constraint that we really had to focus on was an adherence to a specified overall dimension, which are determined by the shipping and transportation to the project site. Our team came up with four bathroom design plans for Prism Apartments that met the overall dimension specifications. Typically in a multi-family project the size of Prism Apartments, you may have more than 10 different bathroom designs that accommodate the unit layouts and building site in an urban setting. As designers, efficiency is a good friend to have throughout the design and construction process, and with four different layouts, we knew this assembly would help streamline the project timeline. Each of these designs was based on both the unit type – for example, some bathrooms had different bathtub/shower variations, and some were simply arranged differently according to the corresponding units’ location within the building. This is where SurePods experience in the hotel industry, where units are repeated and stacked, helped lead the implementation. Once we were able to understand that a prefab modular solution would adhere to our design and craftsmanship standards, we could then consider the cost, schedule and sustainability implications on our project.

As a firm, we are concerned about the environmental impact of our buildings, and we constantly strive to design from a sustainability perspective by minimizing our building’s use of resources and meeting stretch energy codes. Additionally, we have to acknowledge the environmental impacts of the construction. When building bathrooms in the field for a multi-family project like Prism Apartments, there can be a lot of waste involved, often a result of damage caused by various trades needing to go into small spaces to complete work. However, when constructed offsite on an assembly line and delivered to the site shrink wrapped and complete, we were able to keep waste below 2%. Typically, we will see waste around 10%, so this reduction diverts a considerable amount of material from going to a landfill. Cambridge, like many cities across the U.S., has been increasingly tightening municipal permitting requirements to increase sustainability across the city, which we are happy to oblige considering our firm’s commitment to sustainability and waste reduction.

Through our collaboration with SurePods, we were able to address the client’s concerns of schedule and budget. In fact, these prefab modular bathrooms proved more efficient from a total project standpoint than initially thought. We shaved two months off the expected project timeline, and saved the client about $1,500 per unit –an upfront savings of at least $200K on bathrooms alone for this one multi-family project.

From the beginning of our exploration of modular bathroom units to their delivery and installation on site, we’ve been impressed by just how much of a creative solution they’ve been. As Prism Apartments nears completion, we’re excited to have a new, innovative and proven solution to worth with that meets schedule, budget and sustainability constraints. We look forward to expanding the use of modular bathrooms in our other markets like residence halls and senior living in Massachusetts and beyond!