Earlier this month, crews at a large construction site in Mississauga watched as the final building block of a long-delayed long-term care facility was lowered into place.
The 640-bed facility, financed by Infrastructure Ontario and completed for Trillium Health, represents one of the province’s largest “volumetric” modular construction projects to date – a building literally fitted together with rooms or suites pre-built in a 300,000 square-foot factory in Stoney Creek, Ont., established two years ago by EllisDon Modular.
The plant is just a few kilometres away from another large new modular factory, Grimsby-based NRB Modular Solutions, which is owned by infrastructure asset investor Dexterra Group and now operates three other modular factories in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
Their products – pre-fabricated suites fitted out with plumbing, electrical fixtures, kitchens or bathrooms – are built in the controlled conditions of a factory, which means no weather interruptions, better quality control, more comfortable working conditions, less construction debris and significantly speedier assembly. Trucked to construction sites, the pre-fab units are craned into place onto a pre-built foundation and then fitted together.
“That’s why you choose modular,” says NRB president Dawn Nigro. “It is 50-per-cent faster, because you’re producing the units” while the site preparation is underway. She adds that they’re well suited for building projects on space-constrained urban sites, where land is expensive and there’s a lot of pressure to finish disruptive development projects.
Modular “is something that’s been around for many, many years,” says ED Modular senior vice-president Tom Howell, noting that Ellis Don’s Stoney Creek plant can turn out about a thousand 425 sq.-ft. units a year. “It’s just that there seems to be more of an appetite for now.” The demand, he adds, can no longer be ignored.
Builders, as Mr. Howell points out, are not new to components such as pre-made trusses or wall panels. This approach has been extended more recently to what’s known as “flat pack modular” – structures almost entirely constructed with pre-made parts that are assembled on site. One forthcoming example: an 83-unit condo in Mississauga by R-Hauz Solutions, Windmill Development and Lane Leader. The cross-laminated timber structure, modeled on a very similar project on Toronto’s Queen Street East, will begin marketing later this summer, R-Hauz co-founder Michael Barker told the CBC.
Volumetric modular, in turn, has been used in applications such as gas stations, construction site offices or remote northern locales for many years.
Over the past several years, U.S. builders have increasingly turned to modular/pre-fab for multi-unit residential projects. According to the Modular Building Institute, modular structures accounted for about $9-billion in construction activity in 2019. Canadian developers are beginning to follow suit, mainly with publicly funded projects such as affordable housing complexes or LTCs, but also some private commercial buildings, like hotels.
A growing number are constructed from wood, like the three-storey supportive housing projects built with funding from the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative as a way of fast-tracking small apartments for homeless individuals who fled the shelter system during the pandemic. Daniel Ling, an architect with Montgomery Sisam, which has designed seven of these projects in Toronto, says about a thousand such units are being built in Ontario alone.
“[The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation] is really coming to the table with how they can support and insure some of these projects,” says Kevin Read, CEO of Nomodic, a Western Canadian modular builder that has built a hotel in Tofino using modular construction. “There’s a lot of excitement and interest from the major banks now as well to participate because they see that [modular] does actually have a place.”
Given the enormous pent-up demand for more affordable housing, the prospect of using this kind of technique for multi-unit residential buildings seems highly appealing, especially if, as some proponents promise, the process is cheaper, faster and less disruptive.
Yet despite all the tailwinds, the volumetric modular industry has had some growing pains of its own, as Mr. Howell acknowledges. The Trillium project was awarded in 2020 under Infrastructure Ontario’s new “accelerated build” pilot program, with a promised completion date of 2021. The province saw this approach as a way to accelerate its LTC promises.
However, construction took much longer than anticipated, partly because Ellis Don had to pull the plug on its partnership with Z-Modular, a six-year-old Chicago-based subsidiary of Zekelman Industries that had licensed a patented design for the steel-intensive volumetric units to be used in the project.
Zekelman Industries, which manufacturers the steel structural components used in modular construction, is owned by Windsor billionaire Barry Zekelman, who made the news earlier this spring when a non-profit watchdog group revealed that his companies had been fined US$975,000 by the U.S. Federal Election Commission for donating US$1.75-million to Donald Trump’s campaign. U.S. election laws ban political donations from non-citizens.
Howell says doesn’t want to comment on Z-Modular, except to say that the company’s heavy steel-framed designs were more “robust” than Ellis Don required, so his team had to find an alternative. “It’s a company that we’re no longer operating with.”
Z-Modular is responsible for various U.S. projects, such as 143-unit, five-storey apartment building in San Marcos, Tex., targeted at university students. Some of its earlier ventures, however, didn’t fare as well. In 2018, Z-Modular won a contract to build a modular homeless shelter in Washington. As The Washington Post reported, the project foundered and fell behind schedule because of allegations that Z-Modular didn’t have the experience to carry off the project. The dispute ended up in a protracted court battle between Z-Modular and the general contractor over more than US$6.6-million in unpaid fees due to delays.
The company is also suing Toronto industrial designer Julian Bowron, who invented the VectorBloc modular design that Zekelman’s subsidiary acquired in 2018. Mr. Bowron later parted ways with Z-Modular and has since developed a more streamlined design, dubbed Metaloq. The case is ongoing.
Quite apart from the details of these legal skirmishes, such conflicts serve as a reminder that the promise of modular construction as a means of streamlining the construction of multi-unit residential housing has yet to be fully realized.
Mr. Howell, commenting on the Trillium Health LTC, says it would be “premature” to conclude that modular projects will always be completed more quickly than traditional ones.
Ms. Nigro estimates that NRB’s modular units run roughly from $300 to $500/sq.-ft, excluding land costs, which, she says, is cost competitive with conventional construction, although labour and material prices are skyrocketing in the modular business just as much as in any other sector of the development business. Both Mr. Howell and Ms. Nigro agree that more volume is still needed to drive down per unit costs. Neither company’s plants are operating anywhere near capacity.
To date, the lion’s share of volumetric modular buildings in Canada has involved public funding. But Mr. Read, of Nomodic, says he’s hearing more interest from private developers. One of the reasons, he says, is that there are more architects now who have experience designing with modular components. “You can build a high-rise out of modular.”
Aesthetics has long been the other impediment: pre-fab was associated with a certain utilitarian look.
Yet, Ms. Nigro notes that projects with less standardized architecture can easily be built using both traditional construction methods and pre-fabricated modular units. “We can we can achieve different aesthetics and we have some nice examples of that,” she says, stressing that it’s not an either-or proposition. “If you want to have a soaring atrium in the middle of your building, build that on site. And if you have a bunch of offices or suites or whatever in the wings that are going to be pretty similar to one another, let’s do those as modules.”
She’s seeing increasingly appealing and creative modular projects in the U.S., with energy efficiency features, roof-top solar, and even curb appeal, such as a series of duplexes that NRB has worked on in Montana. As Ms. Nigro says, “They’re lovely.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified industrial designer Julian Bowron. Additionally, it incorrectly identified his modular design inventions, which are VectorBloc and Metaloq. This version has been updated.
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