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New York hospitals turn to modular construction to speed projects


Keiko Morris, The Wall Street Journal

After superstorm Sandy nearly destroyed a Brooklyn health-care clinic in 2012, officials at NYC Health + Hospitals looked to modular construction for a quick and economical replacement.

Now the municipal public health-care system is deploying the technology again, this time to build a $28 million two-story ambulatory-care facility on Staten Island with units made in a Pennsylvania factory and bolted together on site.

“It’s going to be part of our algorithm in terms of deciding how we construct something we need,” said Roslyn Weinstein, vice president of corporate operations at NYC Health + Hospitals. “We’ll look at timing needs, estimates, the size of the lot and whether it’s doable or not doable.”

As the region’s health-care institutions spend billions to modernize and expand, some large providers are boosting their use of factory-made components, sometimes constructing entire facilities from modules and other times using smaller components, such as finished bathroom units, within conventionally built projects.

Like builders in the residential and hotel sectors, health-care systems looking to expand have shown a growing interest in modular-building technology as a possible way to deal with a shortage of skilled construction workers and rising building costs, industry officials and experts said.

Modular technology’s promise of shortening development schedules, controlling and improving quality and minimizing disruptive work on site also have been a draw, especially for projects in crowded, urban settings with limited space to place building materials and accommodate workers.

Nearly 400 bathrooms for patient rooms were built in a New Jersey factory and installed in the new 830,000 square-foot Kimmel Pavilion under way at NYU Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. These factory-made components helped reduce the number of workers on site and potential delays. And it allowed for improved quality control and estimated savings of 15% to 20% for bathroom construction, said Vicki Match Suna, senior vice president for NYU Langone’s real-estate development and facilities.

“When you have our project, a new clinical building which is so complex and has so many systems, using this building component avoids some of the crowding you get,” Ms. Suna said.

Modular construction cut as much as six months from the entire development process for NYU Winthrop Hospital’s 3,200 square-foot Level 1 Trauma Center in Mineola, Long Island, which made its debut last year, said Joseph W. Burke, vice president of engineering and facilities.

Ten sections were manufactured in a Midwest factory, while work to prepare the site took place simultaneously. The ambulance bays outside the emergency department had to be relocated temporarily, not an ideal situation. So completing the project in a shorter time-frame was critical, Mr. Burke said.

“The key is the impact to the facility where you are doing this work,” he said. “If it saves months, it’s a home run.”

To be sure, modular building in the health-care sector is still in its early stages in the New York region. The methods don’t work for every project, particularly highly customized designs without repetitive, standardized features, said health-care and building-industry experts.

The factory-made components also bring challenges such as coordinating the design and manufacturing process with local and state inspections, trucking large units on roadways, especially across bridges.

Modular building companies, however, see room for growth, with startups such as New York City-based EIR Healthcare addressing shipping concerns with a concept for a modular hospital room packed flat and assembled on-site, among other things.

Efforts to rein in costs in the health-care industry have created a growing appetite for efficient building solutions, industry experts said. And an aging baby-boomer population has put pressure on an industry to build and upgrade facilities quickly.

“There is demand for a higher level of care, and a lot of these long-term-care facilities want to upgrade facilities and build them as fast as they can,” said Terry Olynyk, head of general contractor PCL Construction’s Agile division, which focuses on manufactured-building services and products.

Over the years, health-care renovations and expansions have been including more modular components such as prefabricated operating room ceilings or headwalls for patient rooms that come with electrical and mechanical systems and equipment, said Charles Maggio, a managing director who specializes in the health-care sector at real-estate services firm CBRE Group Inc. Hospitals also have been standardizing the design of patient rooms.

“I think it’s a doable leap to justify more modular construction for patient rooms,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal
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