A steady stream of shrink-wrapped steel and concrete module units are about to begin their ascent from Ephrata to Brooklyn, N.Y.
For more than a month, modular manufacturer NRB (USA) Inc. will watch as the largest project in its 11-year history leaves Lancaster County on trucks for a private school site about 150 miles away.
There the pieces — built to precise specifications and disassembled over the last six months — will be reassembled seven stories high.
“From the time it starts to the time it leaves, it's crazy,” Don Engle Jr., NRB's general manager, said of the pace of building projects at the Wenger Drive complex.
Part of Canadian-based NRB Inc., the company is a direct or integrated manufacturer of commercial and industrial modular structures. There are no assembly lines or standard building products. NRB works directly with its customers and design professionals to build custom projects.
“We can build what the customer wants, not what the factory needs,” Engle said.
Many of those projects are new construction in urban areas. The primary markets are education, health care, hospitality, retail and office.
“A typical project, if done right, can take as long as three years before it's released for the construction phase,” Engle said. “This one was about a year in the making,” he added, referring to the $10 million private school project, which is being built for Basis Independent Schools.
After some ups and downs following the recession, NRB is in a positive growth cycle right now, like much of the construction industry. The company finished 2013 with nearly $20 million in sales. It expects to do $20 million this year, with goals of growing that by $5 million each year for the next two years, Engle said.
“The level of interest (in modular construction) is off the chart right now,” said Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Building Institute, a trade association based in Virginia.
The biggest advantage is the reduced project timeline, he said. Off-site building of the components, simultaneous with tackling the site work, speeds up the overall construction schedule.
“Depending on the project, this could save as much as 40 percent of the overall schedule,” Hardiman said. “That time savings translates in many cases to financial benefits — shorter construction loan schedule and, more importantly, quick occupancy.”
Quality control and project predictability are big factors as well, he said. Frequent in-plant inspections ensure high levels of quality and workmanship before the building arrives at its destination.
Worker safety is also dramatically improved, Hardiman said.
“Other modular work we've done, typically more assembly line (units), is sometimes more challenging in the fit,” said Mike Funck, senior vice president at Lancaster-based Wohlsen Construction Co.
Wohlsen has worked with NRB on a handful of school projects and is now working on a project near Philadelphia.
“It puts a little more focus on preplanning,” Funck said of modular building. “The whole modular industry is really growing to meet the needs for schedulers for owners.”
From two to 53
The recession led to some closures and consolidations of modular manufacturers, especially those in the single-family residential market, Hardiman said. The commercial manufacturers have fared a little better.
The U.S. operations of NRB started with two employees in 2003. The company has 53 employees today, and officials are projecting growth.
With the high level of activity — most notably the large school project — about 125 people are working right now at the complex, Engle said.
NRB hires regional firms to subcontract various elements of each project. Those projects can be as small as kiosks and shelter facilities. Some are done in a matter of weeks, while others take up to six months.
The company operates from Maine to South Carolina and west to Illinois — in total, about 17 states. The average project cost is about $2.5 million.
Demand and impacts
With growing industry demand in the multifamily sector, NRB is expecting strong activity in student dorm projects and senior housing work, Engle said.
Architects and general contractors who have yet to recognize the value of modular construction remain challenges for the industry, said Raymond Lee, NRB's U.S. sales manager.
“(Some) general contractors understand and realize we're not competition,” Engle said. “We're another tool in their tool belt.”
As time goes on, NRB is also projecting more opportunities to build additions or retrofit existing facilities.
“If you think about it, we can build any building (type) in the entire Northeast,” Engle said, citing the strong supply chain connected by many major highways. “Because we can hire multiple trades, I do not see a limit (to our growth).”
And that rise would mean continued opportunities for smaller construction organizations to bid on NRB projects, Lee added.
Largest project yet
NRB (USA) Inc. in Ephrata is finishing a seven-story, 75,000-square-foot private school for Basis Independent Schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.
It is the largest project in the history of the Canadian company’s U.S. facility, which opened in 2003.
The modular builder will begin shipping the finished modules for the $10 million project by the end of the month or in early July. Occupancy is slated for September.
Some fun facts about the school:
• About 2 million pounds of steel and 614 cubic yards of concrete were used in the construction.
• About 175 lowboy trailers hauled by four trucking companies will be used to transport 163 module units, plus miscellaneous materials.
• NRB will ship units for about 35 days.
• Construction started in Ephrata in December.
• About 125 people have been working to build modules for NRB’s active projects — most for the New York school. Many of those are regional subcontractors from various trades.