Mortenson Pushes the Boundaries With Large-Scale Modular Projects

By Nate Jenkins

The construction industry has proven to be one of the most difficult industries to revolutionize. Many aspects of constructing a building have not changed for centuries. It is becoming increasingly difficult to build in downtown urban settings where sites are tight, streets are crowded, and skilled labor is difficult to find.  While we are starting to see more prefabrication and panelized construction that is assembled on site, those solutions provide incremental benefits, but aren’t game changing solutions. 

And while Mortenson has done its share of prefabrication, we believe that modular construction can truly transform the construction industry. Mortenson is developing expertise in volumetric modular construction.  Utilizing a steel frame, it has the ability to revolutionize certain types of construction such as hotels and multi-family projects that have 80 percent repetitive elements.  These elements can be manufactured offsite, shaving months off the construction schedule. Hotels brands including Marriott, Hilton, and citizenM have used or are exploring the ability to use Modular Construction.  Student, senior, and micro-housing are other markets where modular construction is being explored or utilized. 

Panelized Construction Versus Full-Volumetric Modular

What is the difference between panelized construction and full-volumetric modular? Think of panelized construction like IKEA furniture, it comes in flat boxes and is assembled onsite. Full-volumetric modular construction comes to the site as a complete room, like Lego blocks ready to be stacked; only the mattress needs to be added. Modular also has the ability to be used in high-rise applications with buildings as tall as 30 or 40 stories.  

Photo courtesy of citizenM; Richard Powers, Photographer

Mortenson is now working on its fourth project with citizenM, a hotel owner out of Amsterdam that was founded in 2006, born out of the frustration that most other hotels were boring and poor quality. The few that were stylish and luxurious were expensive and built on inefficient and outdated principles. citizenM builds one type of room, which has everything its travelers say they want – a smart luxury design, wall-to-wall windows, XL King sized beds, power rain showers, tablet mood pads that change the colors of the rooms, and free Wi-Fi and movies.  The amenity rooms are stylishly designed with living rooms and bars, filled with contemporary art. Travelers check themselves in and out – no waiting in line for anything. 

Each project with citizenM has increased Mortenson’s learning by leaps and bounds as our team pushes the boundaries by finding ways to simplify the way the modules are manufactured and connected in order to build even faster. 

Coming to America

citizenM began building its hotels in London, Copenhagen, Paris, Zurich and other global locations for a new generation of travelers who are tech savvy, informed, international and value conscious. When citizenM came to the U.S., they looked for a contractor who was innovative and willing to put the time, effort and energy into what it would take to figure out how to build fully volumetric hotels in the U.S, and specifically on the west coast. 

For their first modular hotel with citizenM, executives from Mortenson went to visit citizenM hotels oversees and tour the modular manufacturer in Poland to understand what it would take to ensure these fully built mods would meet U.S. seismic and building codes. Each mod needed to be inspected by the State of Washington before it left Poland. Having to rely on an international supply chain came with its own set of challenges, including finding Washington L&I  inspectors that were willing to travel to the factory in Poland to inspect each module, including  plumbing pressure test, flooring install, sprinkler pipe test and electrical test before it was shipped. Mortenson controls 100 percent of the quality, inspecting the punchlist, architectural items, and final condition before shipment. 

Modular Advantages

Modular hotels can be built more than 25 percent faster by taking advantage of the ability to complete interior finish work at the same time that excavation and footings are happening on-site. Quality is another huge advantage. Modular construction helps to mitigate the skilled labor shortage that is currently being experienced in many major cities.  Work is done in a conditioned environment and there is a single point of responsibility for the guestroom punchlist. Case in point, while hotels can see an average number of 4,500 items on a punchlist for a typical 250 to 300-room hotel, Mortenson sees something closer to an average of 250 punchlist items for a modular hotel.

The advantages of fully volumetric modular construction far outweigh the challenges. While a conventional building and a modular building start out the same with site demo, prep, and construction of a traditionally built concrete podium and elevator core, modular fabrication of the hotel rooms are happening concurrently in the manufacturing facility, advancing the completion – and hotel revenue schedule. Additionally, construction waste at the factory outperforms by 20 percent and the environmental savings don’t stop there. 

Photo courtesy of Mortenson; Anna Halstead, Photographer

In a typical urban construction site that requires 250 workers per day (as opposed to a crew of 30 that was used on the South Lake Union modular site), monthly impacts include 5,000 private vehicle round trips, 120 material deliver vehicle round trips, 120 hours of idling vehicles, 12 porta-potties emptied every day and 360 cubic yards of mixed construction waste. Safety is also a major factor to consider –fewer workers on site equates to less risk of injury, fewer slips and falls, less contractor vehicle traffic on site, less rigging, staging, and construction elevator trips. The speed to market is the ultimate advantage.

Another factor that makes modular construction advantageous is much easier it is to build in dense urban infill sites, when you don’t need space for laydown areas or 300 craftworkers coming to and from the site each day. 

The technology has now reached a point to facilitate the level of coordination required to make modular construction work for a variety of projects including hospitals student housing and affordable housing to name just a few. Controlling the rising costs of construction, increasing quality, safety, and speed to market is the innovation that will advance the construction industry into the next decade. 

This material appeared in the December 2020 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneer,Dixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder