Global Material Handling System Integrators

Comparing Modular Construction vs. Stick-Built Construction

[caption id="attachment_5008" align="alignright" width="262"]Modular In-plant Offices and Enclosures There are many benefits when installing modular enclosures such as reduced build time and downtime.[/caption] When you need to expand your facility, one key decision when deciding on a structural solution is the choice between modular construction and traditional stick-built or “hard” construction. Some of the typical considerations when making this choice are cost, lead time, and code requirements. While this is a good starting point, there are other things to consider such as waste, business down time, ease of expansion/modification, and environmental impact. Let’s look at the following as a guide to help you compare the two building methods and their benefits-specifically in regard to industrial and commercial buildings such as in-plant offices, modular offices, machine enclosure rooms, and break rooms.


One of the most important factors on any job is time. Lead time, build time, and down time are all important to the building process and can greatly improve or destroy the flow of the project. A traditional “stick-built” structure is typically drawn by an architect and approved by the customer. The materials are then delivered to the job site (often coming in multiple loads throughout the duration of the project), and the building is constructed. Best case scenario, a small in-plant office is completed--start to finish--in about a month’s time. Over two weeks of that time is spent on-site, hindering business and creating dust in the air. Modular construction, on the other hand, can provide decreased lead, build, and down time. For example, a 20’ x 40’ modular, in-plant office can be drawn, manufactured, and shipped to the job site in approximately 5 days. Once there, it takes a professional crew about a week to install. Not only does this greatly reduce total project time from one month to two weeks, but it eliminates job-site material waste and air pollution created by cutting materials on site.


Another important consideration when comparing modular versus stick construction is the ease of future expansion or modification. If your business is growing, the offices you add now might not be enough two years from now. With stick built, adding a second story or an addition would require a certain level of demolition (down to the framing) and then custom construction to match up the addition to the existing structure; once again creating a large amount of unwanted dust and debris in the air around your warehouse or office. Building an addition with modular construction is less involved. Simply start new walls right against existing walls and then unscrew two binder posts and replace a full panel with a door panel to create an entrance into the addition; no need to cut materials and pollute the air. Modular buildings can be added with little to no demolition, and they use standard parts. If future expansion is a probability, include a load bearing roof for the in-plant office, and a second story will be easy to build as the first, whether it’s next week or next year. Access the second floor with a powder-coated prefabricated stair system, and your installation requires little more than tightening a few bolts.

Code Requirements

When dealing with commercial and industrial construction, all materials and the finished product must usually meet certain code requirements if the contractor is pulling a permit on the job. These requirements include load ratings, wind ratings, and fire ratings to name a few. With stick-built construction, the architect’s drawings must be stamped to assure they meet the codes, and then as the crew finishes various steps of the construction process (foundation, framing ,electric, plumbing, etc.) an inspector must approve the work that has been done. With modular construction, the building components are already tested and approved for certain load, wind, and fire ratings. In many cases, modular buildings can be considered equipment in a warehouse and therefore a permit is not required. When a permit is required, the number of inspections is greatly reduced compared to stick built, and thanks to the ease of installation, it is much easier to ensure the building meets or exceeds the code requirements.

Building Green

A major concern in today’s society is building in an environmentally-friendly way. Traditional stick construction uses less recycled material, and more trailers and heavy equipment which generate air and noise pollution. Traditional construction also creates increased waste due to cutting materials to size on site. Because modular components are manufactured and assembled in a factory environment, not only is there reduced noise and dust on site, but the material tolerances are much better since everything is done with the proper tools in a controlled environment. The end result is a higher quality product with less down time and on-site disturbance.


Finally, there is cost. Although the previous factors are more important to choosing the right building method for your specific need, cost is always a major deciding factor. While it can be hard to compare stick built versus modular construction cost, the following are some considerations to make sure the comparison is accurate. When considering modular construction cost, make sure to include:
  • cost of the structure
  • installation
  • required permits
  • cost of future expansion
  • business down time
The same considerations should be made for stick built, with the addition of architect/engineering cost and heavy machinery rental cost. Lastly, consider the tax benefits of choosing modular. Overall, when considering time, expansion, codes, the environment, and cost; the best value in building is more-often-than-not modular construction. ---

Margie Schramke (aka @PanelGirl) was the Marketing Manager for Panel Built, Inc., a modular manufacturer of in-plant office systems, mezzanines and stair systems, preassembled and exterior building systems.

Author: Bill Bastian II


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