Panel Recap: Offsite Construction Architects Making an Impact
Architects in this panel:
Nick Gomez - Studio Director, Multi-Family - Lowney Architecture
Isaac-Daniel Astrachan, AIA, LEED AP - Principal - Stephen B. Jacobs Group
Salvatore B. Verrastro, FCSI, AIA, CCS, CCCA, NCARB - President - Spillman Farmer Architects
Will Hentschel - Principal - 359 Design
For this panel, we had a fantastic group of architects from all over the country and all different types of work — from the tallest high-rise modular hotel in the world located in New York City, to a modular multi-family development in Berkley, CA. This amazing group of architects are all pushing the limits on what's possible when designing an offsite constructed building, and so we wanted to gather them together and gain insight on their design processes, and what might change about it, when doing an offsite constructed project. We asked them all five different questions:
#1: How does your design process shift when you do offsite vs. onsite construction?
The main idea echoed by all of our panelists in response to this question is that designing an offsite constructed project requires much more collaborative decision-making up front. "If we're doing something different, I want to check with my engineer right away," said Nick. "And after input from my engineer, I'll often want to talk to the factory as well. In the end, we want to make sure this building can get built."
"You have to understand the limits of the system," said Isaac. This was the panelists' second point — that you must intricately understand the offsite system you plan to use on a project. By knowing its limitations, you can push the design boundaries as an architect without worrying you might make it more difficult or impossible for the building to actually come together.
#2: How do permitting and regulatory / code processes change in onsite vs. offsite construction?
One of the most important shifts in the permitting and regulatory / code process, according to our panelists, is that there is often a need to educate the local officials of where you're building at to understand the unique nuances of an offsite constructed project. It's usually never the case that local officials do not want a building built offsite — on the contrary, an offsite constructed project can save an area a ton of headaches by drastically reducing the amount of time actually spent building on the project side.
But these buildings are different, and there's no way around that. Because of this, a team working on an offsite constructed project will want to brief city officials as early as possible in a project's timeline on what they should expect. "They don't like surprises anymore than we do," echoed Salvatore.
In the end, getting an offsite constructed building approved by a city should not be any harder than a usual stick-build. But to make sure that's the case, planning to educate city officials upfront on the nuances of your offsite constructed project is vital to successfully breezing through the permitting and regulatory / code process.
#3: Are factories easy to work with on design? What are the challenges?
Overall, our panelists were highly complimentary of the factories they've worked with on their projects. One thing to look out for, though, is a clashing of egos between factory engineers, site contractors, and others who may have a difference of opinion on how a project should come together. This is especially true of projects that use a combination of traditional stick-built construction and offsite construction. Bringing those two worlds together can often be the source of confusion or disagreement on a project.
"The best way is for all of it to to be under one umbrella — that way you minimize the finger pointing," said Isaac. Like in our first question, they stressed the need for upfront planning and collaboration with everyone on the project, especially when the project is bringing together minds that work differently, like a modular factory and a site contractor who does conventional stick-built.
#4: What new trends are you studying in offsite construction?
One of the most important trends discussed here is the quest for increased standardization of unit types for different types of builds. Will Hentschel walked us through how he's been working with different companies to develop workforce housing for their employees, and how they've worked to standardize those by developing different types of units for different types of workers in the company. Nick Gomez walked us through how they're working on similar processes of creating standardized units for their affordable housing, multi-family projects. "They kind of want to skip that unit-design phase, Nick said, "and just go straight into the building design phase."
#5: What advice would you give to firms interested in doing an offsite constructed project?
Some people think modular isn't challenging as far as design and construction," Salvatore said. This is a common stereotype our industry reckons with, but Salvatore reflected on how the scope, beauty, and successes of the various projects our panelists have completed over the years completely breaks down that stereotype. "Don't think you don't have design freedom — you certainly do."
And yet, all our panelists stressed that you should just not hop into the modular world and do an offsite constructed project without the proper expertise, preparations and commitment. To achieve the complex designs that all of these architects have done utilizing offsite construction, you should first work your way up and learn the systems by starting with fairly simple projects. You also should not force an offsite construction system on a project that may not be ready for it.
In the end, this is a new frontier where we are all exploring what is possible, and so our panelists also came back to the point of collaboration as we ended. As firms all over the world continue to adopt and integrate offsite construction systems into their projects, collaboration and sharing knowledge is vital for our industry to move forward. The architects in this panel are all paving the way in AEC to show our industry the amazing possibilities when designing an offsite constructed project, and we commend them for being pioneers in this field.
"No one wants to be first," Isaac said. "But the more modular and offsite projects that are done, the less firsts there will be."