Factory-built components answer some school districts’ building needs
To ease crowding, Lafayette Elementary School in Albany added six classrooms and a commons area using lower-cost factory-built construction methods. The fourth and fifth graders say they like their building, especially the air conditioning. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Lafayette Elementary School’s fourth and fifth graders don’t know their Albany school building was mostly built in a factory, but they appreciate a lot of its important details.
They list air conditioning, bathrooms close to the classrooms and, most important, no younger kids among the building’s best attributes.
The campus expansion looks like a standard building, if a bit plain, but Greater Albany Public Schools leaders know it cost significantly less than traditional construction.
Factory-built construction offers an appealing lower-cost option for districts trying to pitch a bond or to build with their general fund money. Districts are finding different ways to use factory-built construction to ease crowding or replace aging facilities.
Factory-built construction involves creating modular components that are trucked to the site and assembled on a ground-level poured foundation. A factory-built building must meet all the same Oregon code requirements as a building created on site, according to the Oregon Building Codes Division. The only difference is where the pieces are constructed.
Design and material choices determine the extent of cost savings, but factory-built components can reduce costs from 25% to more than 40%. The simpler the building, the greater the cost savings.
“The efficiencies from factory-built construction are the greatest benefit and the greatest limitation,” said Dan Hess, principal at BRIC Architecture.
He said districts can’t customize their translations of education ideas into useful spaces as they would if the building were designed on the site. He added, though, that may not be an issue for many projects, especially structures such as covered play areas or stadium stands.
HMK Co. Managing Director David McKay, who was involved in the Lafayette project, said the factory-built buildings are designed to be 50-year buildings. The structures can easily last longer than that, but it is impractical to plan longer because mechanical systems wear out and building needs change as populations grow and education norms shift. HMK has handled construction for many Oregon school districts, including Greater Albany.
The 10,000-square-foot Lafayette expansion is connected to the main school by a covered walkway. It offers six classrooms and a commons area as well as bathrooms and workspace. Sound proofing reduces distraction between classes as giggling kids wash their hands in classroom sinks or get their packs from the central hallway’s hooks.
Lafayette Principal Jodi Smith was enthusiastic about the new space, which allowed the school to have three classrooms per grade rather than two. She said school staff worked with designers to create the building floorplan, including the large common room for activities such as meals, interventions, meetings and physical education.
Lafayette’s new building inspired the Santiam Canyon School District.
The district east of Salem started researching how to replace its junior/senior high school about two and a half years ago. Initial estimates put the cost over $80 million, a daunting figure for its community. The district investigated a range of solutions, with representatives even traveling to Texas and Oklahoma to check out a lower-cost building approach that utilizes domes.
Scaling back architectural ambitions whittled the price down to about $33 million, but that was still too much, according to school board member Jamey Fawcett. He works for Accent Building Restoration, and because of his construction experience, he was part of the facilities review.
“We were about to give up on the thought of being able to build a new school until we came across the factory-built,” he said.
Santiam Canyon representatives toured Lafayette, which was completed two years ago, and saw a solution for their district. The district settled on a $17.9 million factory-built plan that included three classroom buildings, an auxiliary gym and an elementary cafeteria.
Because Santiam Canyon was building a whole school, not just a campus add-on, it added more architectural bells and whistles, with fewer straight sight lines. The aim was to create high-quality buildings for a reasonable price.
Superintendent Todd Miller said the district thoroughly investigated all its options and laid them before the community, addressing skepticism about factory-built buildings. Santiam Canyon passed its first bond in May.
“I truly think it had a lot to do with (how) we showed our due diligence,” Miller said.
Site preparation will begin early in 2020, with an expected opening in time for the 2020 school year. Factory-built construction speeds up the timeline because components can be built concurrently with site work.
“In December when it’s snowing, I can still be building buildings,” said Ken Mero, the sales vice president of Modern Building Systems. The Aumsville-based company is a leading Oregon source of factory-built components. Mero said about 50 percent of its work is for the education market.
The largest Modern Building component is typically 14 feet by 66 feet and 13 feet high. Oregon Department of Transportation trucking rules are the main restriction on component size. The company can create larger spaces on site by joining components without the intervening walls.
“This is just a Lego system,” said Kat Lingemann, sales and project manager.
She said customers can build as big and as fancy as they want, but the more features that can be done in the plant, the cheaper it will be. Too much customization at the site defeats the modular purpose, she said.
Factory-built buildings are an excellent solution for districts that need to add on, Scott Rogers said. Rogers is senior project manager for construction management company Wenaha Group, as well as being OSBA Board vice president and Athena-Weston School Board chair.
Rogers said the factory-built approach makes it easy with one-stop shopping and ready-made plans, eliminating some of the need for district design or procurement work. He cautioned, though, that districts needed to consider the political realities of having much of the construction work done at a far-away factory rather than in the community by local contractors.
He said it is important for districts to identify exactly how they want to deliver education and how a new facility will play into that.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA