Kullman Buildings Corp.
This summer's courses at are made of bricks and masons use real mortarboards.

Though on-site construction did not begin until May 15, five six-unit dormitories at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pa., will rise in time for September occupancy. The Village’s permanent steel-and-concrete modular construction, which separates factory module production from on-site assembly, is facilitating the 41,000-sq-ft project’s efficient replacement of existing dorms.

"Since we could only build easily during the summer time, modular construction was very desirable," says David Rabold, capital project manager for Muhlenberg College. The choice for modular was a time issue, not a cost issue, says Rabold of the $13.2-million project.The price tag is comparable to conventional construction, he says. The time available for construction drove the decision to go modular. In just three months, the new accommodations will add 145 beds to the school strapped for housing alternatives.

Summer School

Modular jobs can cut traditional construction time by about 50%, says Avi Telyas, CEO of Kullman Buildings Corp., Lebanon, N.J., the vendor of these permanent, pre-fabricated buildings. The segregated factory-to-site process ensures more a shorter timeline and a higher quality product, he says, since ideal indoor conditions minimize weather delays and production inconsistencies. Kullman’s services came to about $7.8 million.

Each of the Village’s 20-piece buildings took about a month to build in the factory when started in January, says Telyas. There, the volumetric “mods” were outfitted with most structural and interior components, including toilets, showers, electrical wiring, windows, and cabinetry. Even the full brick exterior was factory-assembled, says Telyas, a feat made possible by the modules’ steel, not wood, frames.

Only the Village’s roofs had to be assembled on-site in May, on a nearby tennis court, since their 55x55x20-ft dimensions exceeded the 15-ft overhead of Kullman’s trailers. The contractor used a 600-ton hydraulic crane to lift the 27,000-lb roofs, says Telyas.

To coordinate the modules’ assembly, Kullman ran CATIA renderings with simulations from a crane lifting optimization software. The proprietary software, which was developed by a professor at the University of Alberta, orchestrates the assembly process down to the minute, says Telyas. For instance, when the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection unexpectedly moved a retention pond onto a staging area, they were able to rerun the simulation and change the sequence of handling equipment.

Such precision is key to the Muhlenberg site, says project manager Anthony Filippini of Kullman. With less than 30 ft between each dorm and at least a 10-ft difference in each building’s elevation, conventional construction would have been a “logistical nightmare.” Also, since so much work was finished preliminarily in the factory, modular projects only require half the crew of conventional projects he says.

Kullman crews, which handle both factory production and on-site assembly, is working concurrently with subcontractor Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., Baltimore, Md., which handles foundation prep work and utilities.

Project architect Joe Biondo, of Bethlehem, Pa.-based Spillman Farmer Architects, insists that the modular technique afforded him full aesthetic latitude. “It doesn’t really inhibit creativity at all. It just provides a bit more of a framework with which to design from.” As compared to a conventional building, he also had to account for shipping requirements and increased lateral movement of the Muhlenberg modules.

The dormitory at Muhlenberg is actually the school’s third modular housing project since 1996. Permanent modular construction isn’t new, says Chuck Savage, northeast regional manager for Williams Scotsman Inc., Baltimore, Md., which specializes in both temporary and permanent modular construction. Still, the technique accounts for less than 3% of the construction industry, which Savage blames on the widespread misconception that “modular” necessarily means temporary. “We’re not just building temporary trailers,” he says. “We do permanent healthcare facilities, office buildings, correctional institutions.”

Savage hopes projects like the Village will turn the tide and show the capabilities of steel-and-concrete modular construction.