Builders, MBI press for modular standards

Mateo Atwi sees the promise of modular construction. It’s why he and his brother Tiago founded BOXY Construction last year.

As CEO of the Lafayette, Louisiana-based modular construction company, Mateo knows firsthand the advantages of building the same components on the firm’s factory floor over and over again. The company has shipped modules to Texas and Mississippi, as well as within Louisiana, and is currently considering a project in Pennsylvania, said Atwi.

Despite that momentum, Atwi and others say a lack of national regulatory standards is hindering the promise of modular and offsite construction, which in theory allow for reuse of designs, provide quicker return on investments and reduce labor costs, among many other advantages.

Atwi points to different highway dimension requirements as an example.

“Transport sizes change from state to state. What could be relatively easy in one state, say a certain width, could be very hard to transport in another state,” said Atwi. “That’s definitely one big one because that changes your module size.”

Another is building codes tailored to each locale. In Louisiana, codes address high winds and hurricanes. In northern states, code officials are not concerned with high wind but rather high levels of insulation.

“You can’t really build the same building for both areas,” said Atwi. “Unless you over design it for one area.”

Different regulations from state-to-state stymie efficiency, said Steve Grzesik, sales manager at Panel Built Inc., a Blairsville, Georgia-based modular manufacturer. 

“Each state adopting different versions of each code makes everything an administrative and engineering challenge,” said Grzesik. “Standardization would be a blessing.”

Yet it could take another five years for offsite construction standards to be implemented at scale, said Ryan Colker, vice president of innovation at the International Code Council (ICC). During a session at the 2022 World of Modular convention and tradeshow in San Antonio last month, Colker detailed how attempts to standardize sooner haven’t been successful.  

“Members of the development committee, including the Modular Building Institute, submitted a proposal to include Standards 1200 & 1205 in the 2024 International Building Code,” said Colker. “The proposal was disapproved at the Committee Action hearings.”

The ICC is now targeting 2027 as the first time offsite standards could be embedded in the IBC, but challenges remain. 

Thirty-nine states have programs that regulate offsite construction within their borders, and all of them are different, said Colker. The remaining states don’t have programs, leaving it up to local jurisdictions to decide how to apply existing codes for traditional site building methods to offsite construction. 

Given those differences, some modular practitioners aren’t holding their breath for standardization to materialize any time soon.

“I don’t think states are going to all have a group hug and decide to be on the same page, it’s just not going to happen,” said Mitch Hovaldt, director of engineering and design at Guerdon, a Boise, Idaho-based manufacturer of commercial modular. Instead, his team works around the various codes that are in place. “We, for the most part, can adjust between the various code cycles,” he said, adding, “It’s not a big deal for us.” 

Proposed standards

The absence of national standards to date doesn’t reflect a lack of effort, however. The ICC and MBI released in late 2021 two standards to promote consistency in the offsite construction regulatory process. 

Standard 1200 covers the design, fabrication and manufacturing side of the process, including planning, transportation and safety. Standard 1205 covers inspection and regulatory compliance for offsite projects, including the permitting process, in-plant and onsite inspections and the role of third party inspectors.  

Standard 1200 benefits architects, manufacturers, construction managers and general contractors, Colker said, while Standard 1205 provides guidance to code officials on evaluating offsite projects.

The ICC also opened a new standards project to develop Standard 1210, which would cover mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, energy efficiency and water conservation in offsite construction.

“The intent is that these work together but provide direction for different audiences,” said Colker. “They feed into each other, [they] recognize there’s the regulatory side and the design and manufacture side. But ultimately, they need to work together.”

Salt Lake City, Utah became the first jurisdiction in March 2021 to adopt Standards 1200 and 1205, according to the ICC. No states have adopted the standards, but that is likely to change soon, said Tom Hardiman, executive director at MBI.

“It appears likely that the state of Virginia will become the first in the nation to actually adopt the two new standards as part of their code development process,” Hardiman said. “The standards have been recommended for approval for the September 2022 final hearings.”

Still, even if that happens, the path toward uniform acceptance is likely to be a long one.  

“Now that we have a standard, the next step is to support adoptions at the state and local level,” said Colker. “The way that the standards are developed, they can be adopted either as part of a building code update process or standalone requirements.”

Meanwhile, builders who focus on modular and offsite construction are doing their best to take advantage of efficiencies where they can. 

“We’re going to see a shift towards productization which will help with standardization,” said Atwi. “It’s very difficult to optimize a module for as many areas as possible whenever you’re building a different module every single time. I think there’s going to be a level of standardization that will benefit the industry.”

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