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What Is the Difference Between Prefabricated and Modular Buildings?

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Stream Modular is a transportation logistics company specializing exclusively in modular construction. We help modular manufacturers and builders transport mods, pods and panels so they arrive on time and safely to the build site.

  • Prefabricated buildings are manufactured in a factory setting then assembled at a construction site.
  • Modular buildings are 70% or more prefabricated before leaving the factory, often including pre-fitted wiring and fixtures.
  • All modular buildings are prefabricated, but not all prefabricated buildings are modular.

Prefabricated buildings and modular buildings are both efficient and cost-effective structures manufactured in a factory prior to assembly onsite. Though people sometimes use them interchangeably, they are not quite the same. A prefabricated building is a more general category under which modular falls. In other words, all modular buildings are prefabricated, but not all prefabricated buildings are modular.

Let’s examine some key differences that differentiate the two terms and analyze some real life examples of prefabricated and modular buildings that demonstrate each concept.

What is a prefabricated building?

“Prefabricated” is an umbrella term used to describe manufacturing a structure in a factory then assembling the components at a construction site to form a complete building. Essentially, it’s the fabrication of a product before (pre) transportation and building onsite.

There are two main types of prefabricated buildings: panelized and modular. Factories build panels or modules in a controlled environment and ship them to the construction site where they are then pieced together. Some prefabricated buildings still require 70% or more assembly on arrival.

Prefabricated construction examples:

  • Storage buildings
  • Office buildings
  • School buildings
  • Homes/apartments/condos
  • Retail and commercial

What is a modular building?

Modular buildings are at least 70% prefabricated prior to transport, sometimes even pre-fitted with wiring and finishes. As such, they are nearly complete volumetric sections of a building — entire rooms, sections, or structures — when they exit the factory. Workers then piece them together, almost like Lego blocks, onto a foundation.

In the United States, modular projects are held to the same exacting local building codes as stick-built construction.

Common module-built buildings:

  • Hotels
  • Multi-family developments
  • Portable medical labs and administrative offices
  • Portable workforce housing units
  • Offices
  • Classrooms

A modular example

An exciting logistics and transport project with RISE Modular exemplifies modular construction as an affordable, fast solution for housing. We are proud to partner with RISE for the MPHA Family Housing Expansion Project, which is using modular to construct 84 affordable multi-family housing units across 16 residential sites in Minneapolis as part of the city’s deeply affordable scattered-site family housing portfolio.

Why modular was a good fit

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority had three options in their initial proposal for this project: traditional site build, panelized, or full volumetric modular. Ultimately they decided that the high-quality and factory-built and -controlled process made modular construction the best investment.

“Municipalities need to spend money wisely, and modular construction gives them the opportunity to both balance the budget and provide the utmost quality and care for the people they serve,” says Michel Denn, Vice President of Field Operations at RISE Modular. “We believe MPHA chose modular construction because of the superior quality, cost savings, and the construction timeline is estimated to be 30% faster than traditional construction, reducing the impact on the neighborhoods and allowing them to house families sooner.”

What’s more, RISE Modular was able to help make funds go further, anticipating cost savings to be around 13% to 21% without compromising quality or aesthetics.

A prefabricated example

Miller Children’s Village in Long Beach, California, is an 80,000 sq. ft., four-story building on the Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach campus that provides specialty pediatric outpatient care. Completed in February 2021, the building was designed to create a place that supports a collaborative, efficient model of care in a light, colorful, energetic setting that puts child patients at ease.

The exterior wall installation was against an aggressive timeline since there was a major project focus on the elaborate interior work necessary for the facility to open on time. Thus, the builders chose to prefabricate the exterior walls to accelerate installation as much as possible.

Why prefab was a good fit

The developers hired Kapture Prefab, who designs and builds prefabricated wall panels for large-scale commercial construction, as well as a novel method to install these panels with miraculous speed. Their prefab process allows contractors to dramatically reduce construction time while receiving precision engineered products. We were proud to work with Kapture as the transportation logistics partner ensuring panels shipped from the factory in Arizona to the site in California arrived safely, in sequential order, on time.

Miller Children’s Village faced several challenges with the exterior envelope — California seismic requirements, extensive wall penetrations, and a complex design to name a few. Panelized construction provided an excellent solution to accommodate these needs on a tight timeline.

Panels were designed and manufactured in a controlled factory environment to accommodate seismic needs, address critical visual alignments, and deliver the many colors and textures inherent in the
design theme. Overall, the team reduced exterior wall install time from six months to five weeks.

Prefabricated and modular transportation logistics are our specialty

In both of these examples, timely, sequential deliveries were essential to the projects’ success. And because Stream Modular specializes in prefabricated and modular transportation logistics, we had the experience and knowledge to ensure the transportation process ran smoothly.

To see how we can help you make your next transportation logistics project involving shipping prefabricated or moving modular products a shipping success, reach out.

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