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An American perspective: skyscraper architecture goes modular in the UK

September 2, 2009

Building Design and Modular Construction
By James B. Guthrie, AIA

The city of Wolverhampton, England, enters the architectural history books this month as residents move into Victoria Hall, their brand new high-rise modular apartment building. At 25 stories, Victoria Hall is the world’s tallest building built with off-site construction methods.

The 25-story Victoria Hall, the world’s tallest modular building

A mixed-used apartment complex for students at the University of Wolverhampton, Victoria Hall consists of four buildings, three of which have just been completed, and is a substantial architectural solution to overcrowding and tight building sites in this historic English town, about 110 miles northwest of London. The tallest building of the group is of particular note because, at 25 stories, it now holds the record for overall height and number of stories in a building constructed principally off-site. The ground floor is site-built, but the other 24 stories are assembled from 383 individual modules built several hundred miles away across land and sea in Cork, Ireland.

Victoria Hall is a logical response to growing pressures on student housing in the UK. As in the U.S., the UK is experiencing rapid growth in its university population and there is diminishing funding for school infrastructure. Additionally, many UK universities are located in urban areas with significant site constraints. Because university-sponsored housing is lagging, private developers have emerged to fill the student housing gap, and London-based Victoria Hall Ltd is one such company. Having built 10 student housing projects in the last 14 years, they are one of Britain’s prominent private student housing developers. Working for a number of years with O’Connell East Architects of Manchester, and prior to this project, Victoria Hall Ltd. had developed a reputation for delivering high-quality projects through traditional methods of construction. When the University of Wolverhampton found itself behind in its ability to provide accommodations for its growing student population, Victoria Hall Ltd. offered to provide a housing solution and a landmark architectural statement. Because the need was urgent, they sought an aggressive building program to complete the project.

Challenged with the multiple pressures of speed, quality, and scale, the project team investigated alternative methods of project delivery. Vision Modular Structures, a division of The Fleming Group, entered the picture. The Flemming Group is a general contractor, Vision is their modular building division. Fleming/Vision, which has completed several other modular construction projects in their native Ireland, was contracted to build both the modules and the site-built components. Fleming also provided general construction management.

“We had a well developed building program and final design in hand when Fleming came on board.” said Gary East, RIBA, principle at O’Connell East Architects. “We worked very closely with the engineers at Vision Modular to accomplish the use of Vision technology with minimal alteration to our design. Because the developer, university and community all wanted a strong design statement, the building system had to conform to the design objectives, not the other way around.”

The Vision factory in Cork, Ireland, starting modular production just as initial site work was beginning back in England in July 2008. Site piles were driven and capped, and above those a ground floor with long spans for street level uses and student common areas was built of poured-in-place concrete. The ground floor acts as an architectural plinth as well as a structural transfer beam for the smaller span modular structures above.

Tower assembly

The building’s cores, which house the central circulation, centralized utilities, fire stairs, and elevators, are site built from slip-formed concrete.

As for the modules, each has its own structural steel frame designed to carry the loads of the modules above it. The modules also include concrete floors, drywall walls and ceilings, and a fire-rated envelope. Prior to shipping, all modules are pre-fitted with plumbing, fixtures, finishes, cabinets, and even furnishings (multiple modules are used to complete each student suite). Once completed, the individual modules made their way from Cork by boat and truck to Wolverhampton.

The modules weigh 21 to 29 tons and are lifted into place by crane. Individual modules are stacked on top of the prior story and attached to the core. Once a module has been set in its final location the frames are spot welded to create a unified structural mosaic.

Stacked modules

On the inside, a module’s preinstalled electrical and plumbing components are simply joined to the main runs. The modules are then sealed and finished at their mate lines. Outside, a rainscreen façade is applied over factory-installed waterproofing. After the modules are set, the final façade work is applied using a lightweight façade scaffolding system.

Application of building façade

Architect Gary East and his team estimated the modular project would have taken at least 24 months using traditional site-built methods, but modular construction enabled them to top out all three buildings in nine months—well ahead of schedule, Total project completion is set before students arrive for their fall classes this year, fully 10 months ahead of site-built alternatives.

Considering that the demands of this project in general were substantial and that this project is the first time many on the project team had worked with modular construction methods, it is interesting to know that when asked if they would do it again, the common response is “absolutely”.

“In spite of this being a new method for most team members, the project went smoothly, quickly, stayed on budget, maintained our quality objectives and architectural integrity, and will actually be done ahead of our originally aggressive schedule, ” says Jenny Hayes, RIBA, O’Connell East’s project architect on Victoria Hall.

It is hard to argue with that.

About the author
James B. Guthrie, AIA is an architect and modular builder. He is President of Miletus Group, Inc. a Rochester, Ind., modular design build firm, and owner of a modular factory. A strong advocate for the use of modular methods in architectural projects in the US, Mr. Guthrie visited Victoria Hall in May 2009 as part of his research for a book he is currently working on about modular architecture.

MOD SQUAD - Temporary branches become burgeoning bank trend

Written by Greg LaRose
As appeared in New Orleans City Business
Posted with permission of New Orleans City Business

Trina Jeffery, manager of the Chase branch on Carrollton Avenue, works from a modular building while a permanent site down the street is being repaired. “Victims of Hurricane Katrina still relying on temporary trailers for housing can’t rehab their homes soon enough. Pre-fabricated modular buildings are the way to go, however, for bankers returning to pre-storm locations and expanding in the metro area.

Customers regularly line the ramp outside Chase’s modular building on Carrollton Avenue near Earhart Boulevard — the bank’s temporary home while offices at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenue are being rebuilt. Michael Lulich, senior vice president and retail market manager in New Orleans, said the brick-and-mortar branch will reopen by year’s end.

Chase operated seven temporary facilities after the storm and has moved back into four pre-Katrina branches. The West Judge Perez branch is temporarily sited in a shopping center near the original office now being refurbished, and modular buildings are open at two locations — Carrollton and Lake Forest — while Chase determines what to do at its former Lakefront location.

Lulich said modular buildings allowed Chase to assess areas it served pre-Katrina and decide the scale of rebuilding plans. The concept could be applied to Chase expansions in other areas, he said.

“It’s something that’s worked here and we don’t see any reason it wouldn’t work in a non-hurricane area.” Lulich said….....

Earline Boisedore, First NBC senior vice president of retail operations, said it costs roughly $1 million to construct a new bank branch.

“It would take me six to nine months to build a branch,” said First NBC President and CEO Ashton Ryan. “(Modular buildings) are a tremendous resource for dealing with the customer early rather than waiting for six to nine months for the branch to be built.”

The state Office of Financial Institutions does not track how many modular buildings are being used since a bank must commit to building a brick-and-mortar branch to obtain a permit for a temporary site.

Sid Seymour, OFI chief examiner, said the state allows banks 18 months to build a permanent branch where a temporary facility is being used, but some leeway is being granted because of Katrina and overwhelming construction demands. He said most banks exit modular buildings within a year.

J.D. Fields, deputy chief examiner, said more modular branches are going into New Orleans and the North Shore as banks move to areas where the population has shifted.

“The sooner they can get into operation, the sooner they can get their name out and start to turn a profit,” Fields said.

First Bank and Trust will use modular buildings to implement its growth plan, said Mickey Brown, FBT president. Of the 48 branches it plans to open over the next five years, most will be preceded by temporary branches.

Brown said the modular sites “allow us to get a head start and get that business flowing into the bank before the completion of the branch.”

Since banks have to replace temporary offices with permanent ones, the modular buildings are not considered test sites, Seymour said. In most instances, banks will open loan production offices that do not accept deposits or conduct cash transaction, to determine a market’s viability.

Seymour said there is some uncertainty while a temporary location is in use.

“It’s hard for (banks) to tell how accepted that particular branch is going to be until they actually get the brick-and-mortar branch built,” he said. “The customers ... want some sign of permanency in that area. Until you put the bricks and mortar there, they don’t have the comfort level.”

(c) 2007 New Orleans City Business. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission by the Modular Building Institute.
No reproduction, transmission or display is permitted without the written permissions of New Orleans City Business.

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