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The Advantages of Modular Building Construction
By: Jim Attrell

Many American churches are facing increasing attendance and/or declining giving, causing a serious strain on available resources at a time when their members need those support resources the most.

Innovative strategies are needed to meet those needs and to provide additional worship and educational space when there are limited financial resources. Off-site and multi-site venue alternatives, while not ideal, can often provide a cost-effective option to new construction. However, those alternatives can only be a short-term "fix" if the congregation starts to feel split.

Another viable and successful method of providing new facilities to meet the need is to purchase or lease modular office, classroom, and/or worship facilities and to prepare a long-term plan to either replace the modular buildings at some point in the future or to include them in that same plan as part of the permanent church campus. This takes vision and a building committee team that is dedicated to fully investigating this cost-effective option and the many quality modular products that are available in America today.

The first reaction from most congregations considering modular construction is that the product might be ugly, unsafe, and uncomfortable, and that certainly can be the result without a thorough investigation into what the modular construction industry has to offer and a careful decision about the supplier and the product being purchased.

In an effort to acquire or lease the most cost-effective modular building, many churches make the mistake of ignoring available upgrade opportunities and they select the lowest bidder that meets the basic need. Quite often, that mistake results in a building on the church campus that is not very durable or energy-efficient, and that simply does not fit with the churches architectural features and appearance.

A modular building that is energy-efficient, durable, and manufactured and then field-finished to blend in with the existing church campus, in terms of exterior colors and finishes, is often available at a relatively small additional cost.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a modular building, once installed on a church campus, can often become a permanent feature, even though it was not originally intended to be so. This can be a problem if little thought was put into that possibility.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) is an Act of Congress passed by the U.S. House and Senate in 2000, and it overrides local permit requirements that can often be punitive to a struggling church. This powerful Act was passed in an effort to provide protection of land use as religious exercise and states that, “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The full text of the ACT is available on the Internet from a variety of Web sites, and, if a copy of the ACT is presented to your City Attorney prior to your application for a permit for erection of a modular building, then the permit process can often be expedited. In addition, it does not hurt to involve church members who have political contacts within the city and to equip them with this same information about RLUIPA.

A helpful resource for finding a modular building provider, in addition to this magazine, is the Modular Building Institute, www.mbinet.org.  Founded in 1983, it’s the only international non-profit trade association serving non-residential modular construction. Membership includes wholesale manufacturers, direct manufacturers, and dealers of commercial modular buildings. It is MBI's mission to grow the industry and its capabilities by encouraging innovation, quality, and professionalism through communication, education, and recognition.

Your modular building provider should have a record of success with other churches in your area, and you should be able to visit those past projects with your building committee or church representatives.

There are many upgrades available to help you to choose durable and energy-efficient options that will help to save on energy and maintenance costs, and your new provider should demonstrate ability to provide these options.

If the need is short-term, the modular building provider should be capable of leasing the new modular building or providing a guaranteed buy-back at some future date.

Finally, and most importantly, the modular building provider should have experience with assisting you through the permit process to include preparation of an engineered foundation plan for your new building.

In addition to a building committee and a modular building provider, a civil engineer is likely going to be necessary. Normally, the church would select the civil engineer who prepared the original site plan for the church. This person can help to meet the needs of the permit office in terms of parking, landscaping, site lighting, handicap access, site utilities, and placement of the new modular building on the site plan. The city will almost always require a new site plan to accommodate the building permit application.

The modular building provider’s contribution to the permit application process is the engineered building drawing package to include the foundation plans. If the modular building is ordered from stock, the building drawings should be available from file, and the foundation plans might take another one to two weeks to prepare, usually by a third-party licensed structural engineer familiar with the modular building product and the site conditions. If the modular building is a custom building, the drawing process, including your approval, could take another two to three weeks, depending on current engineering department workload at the factory.

Once the building permit is approved, then the materials for manufacturing of the building are ordered and production is started at the first available opportunity in the production schedule. That is usually within two to three weeks. The actual manufacturing process (time that the building is on the production line) of a smaller building is usually about two weeks. Delivery and setup occurs within days of the production off-line date, and field finish out takes just a few days, depending on the scope of work.

If the building permit application process is two to three weeks, the entire process from contract to completion of the delivery and setup is often less than 90 days, even for a very large modular campus project, making modular building construction an attractive and cost-effective choice for a growing church.

Jim Attrell is vice president and general manager of Nortex Modular Space, www.nortexmodular.com.

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