With the increasing use of modular construction in all types of building applications, I wondered if Architects were aware of some of the unique aspects of designing for the modular industry.
To find out I visited with Aaron Trometter, Engineering Manager at Champion Modular Inc who has seen and helped design some of the largest modular homes and projects in the US.
Modcoach: Thanks for talking with me about the changing role of Architects in modular construction.
Aaron: Thank you, Gary, for asking me to take part in this interview. I feel that with my degree in Architectural Technology and my 27 plus years in the modular industry, I have a great insight to what an Architect should be asking and how they cater their designs for modular construction.
As everyone should know by now, a modular home is a stick-built house built in a controlled atmosphere factory condition. Even though it is the basically the same as an on-site stick-built house, there are limitations ranging from plant constraints to shipping regulations that must be taken into consideration starting at the design stage.
Here at the factory, my team and I take great pride in taking a set of Architect’s drawings and converting them into a modular built structural package knowing that at some point it was developed without considering the structure would be constructed in a factory and delivered hundreds of miles and then placed onto the property by a crane.
Modcoach: Do you often get plans drawn by an Architect who obviously knows very little about volumetric modular construction?
Aaron: We receive several Architect drawings each month that are not drawn with modular construction in mind and we have to re-design to make it work for our industry and to our construction standards. Most of the builders and developers understand why we made changes, but it is tough to explain it to the architect and homeowner why not everything matches exactly ranging from room dimensions to roof design.
Modcoach: What is usually the first question an Architect asks when contacting you about a modular project?
Aaron: “Tell me everything I need to know about designing a house for modular construction”. I will follow up with a brief 30-minute summary of the basics to get them started in the right direction.
If an Architect knows upfront that their design will end up being built modular out of a factory, it would be helpful to visit a house right after its set or take a factory tour when an factory is hosting an open house event.
Seeing the structural components, or “modules”, before they are finished over and fastened together provides a great insight into our process.
Modcoach: If you could tell an Architect just one or two things before, they started designing and drawing a modular project, what would it be?
Aaron: A design that begins with an understanding of the preferred modular transportation dimensions will be more affordable and efficient. While most designs can be accomplished, following some simple guidelines will improve affordability and a better outcome.
Modcoach: What basics knowledge do you consider necessary for an Architect to know before doing their first modular project?
Aaron: Just because it looks good on paper does not mean it works. Current structural designs require braced wall configurations and special needs that are not always incorporated by some architects. As a in a recent example, it is hard to configure a 26’ width of glass windows in a 28’ wide wall, floor to ceiling.
I sense a disconnect by some architects that may not have a complete understanding of recent high wind code changes that impact design. Every couple of months, I am forced to explain to an Architect about meeting the braced wall requirements as outlined in Chapter 6 of the International Residential Code book.
Most of the time, the response is that we will let the structural engineer figure it out later. I feel it’s better to take a look at it upfront and let the homeowner know before they fall in love with the elevation showing all the glass windows or the 16’ wide patio door in an 18’ wide wall.
Modcoach: When a developer shops his Architect drawn plans to several modular factories, do you think the developer is aware that every factory may have different standards?
Aaron: No, most developers think that if one factory can do it, it can be done at all factories. A simple example would be the length of the module. Depending on the layout of the factory and the way the production assembly line is laid out, will limit modular length. One factory could be limited to 60’ length and the next factory down the road can build 68’ length modules.
Many factories have talented teams that are experienced with custom modular construction and have capabilities to create elaborate home designs, but that does not qualify all modular factories. It is best to look at the products the factory has completed and talk to their customers.
Modcoach: At what point in the process should you and the developer’s or builder’s Architect talk?
Aaron: As soon as they have a rough sketch of what they are looking for in their design. It will give me and my team an opportunity to provide some feedback of what may work and not work. I would be looking at anything from spans in the mating walls to the number of openings in the exterior walls to see if it will meet braced wall requirements.
Also, just understanding some of the terminology. A simple term like “vaulted ceiling” will mean something different to the factory than what the Architect is expecting.
Modcoach: The modular commercial industry has a good track record with Architects. Are you seeing more Architects working with single family home buyers wanting to use modular construction?
Aaron: It's been about the same for the last 5 years. As a custom modular home factory, we see a lot of plans drawn by architects, where the homeowner and builder are educated on modular advantages such as quicker turn time than site built construction.
I feel the main thing to help with the design process is if the homeowner and the Architect agree upfront that they will want the house built modular. As I stated previously, getting a set of prints here at the factory and being asked to “match exactly because we have already invested thousands of dollars to get this drawn” does not work when its missing mate walls and exceeds shipping height limits.
Modcoach: Thank you so much for helping both developers and their Architects get a better idea of how to work with a modular factory's engineering department.
Aaron: Glad to help and if an Architect needs help with an upcoming project, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org