When Advocate Aurora Health opens its new 16-bed addition at its Grafton medical center, it will be the first building in Wisconsin that was fully built using a method called modular construction.
The Grafton facility is among Appleton-based The Boldt Co.'s first health care projects to use what it calls full volumetric modularization. In other words, it was almost entirely pre-fabricated off site, minus things like the building foundation and underground plumbing.
Boldt has used this building method in other projects within the last year or so. But, Grafton is the contractor's first permanent installation. It's also the first of its kind in the state, according to Boldt.
John Huggett, vice president and general manager with Boldt, said Advocate Aurora reached out with interest in modular construction about a year ago.
The health care system, which is dual-headquartered in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Illinois, wanted a cost-effective building method that could finish more quickly than traditional stick-built construction.
Advocate Aurora plans to open the new wing to patients in early September. The project was delivered about six months earlier than it would have otherwise.
"Number one, it was around how quickly we could get this building online," said Karen McKenzie, Advocate Aurora's director of planning, design and construction for the greater Milwaukee and southern Wisconsin region. "Grafton and that area is expanding, so we wanted to make sure we had an appropriate place to serve our patients. And the need for those rooms were certainly there."
Before the Grafton project, Boldt worked with other health care organizations nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic to address sudden shortages of hospital beds.
Boldt and Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers in spring 2020 introduced STAAT Mod, a method of quickly building and deploying temporary intensive-care units.
It was quickly deployed in two locations in Maryland. Boldt then went to Georgia to quickly build a 71-bed ICU expansion in a parking lot. The Georgia project was finished in five months.
"When everybody was building tents, our partner HGA and Boldt at the beginning of COVID said, 'We've got to do something better than put our patients in tents,'" Huggett said.
In the case of Grafton, Boldt fabricated the building at a 40,000-square-foot facility in Manitowoc. There, between 30-40 craft laborers assembled the building in sections small enough to fit on semi truck trailers. The trucks then delivered the sections to Grafton, where crews then installed them atop the foundation.
There are varying degrees to which a project can use modular construction. Specific building components can be pre-fabricated and attached to the rest of the building at the job site.
For instance, Boldt first started using the method to develop room pods. Those pods would be placed within a steel frame that was built at the project site. Maryland marked Boldt's first project in which it pre-fabricated the structural steel components as well.
Advocate Aurora's Grafton project is an extension of that, though it is a permanent fixture.
"This is now doing the complete build offset in a frame … build out all the interiors, set them on foundations that are installed in advance, and then make the connections, and then we're done," Huggett said. "That's our full volumetric solution."
Huggett said other markets are starting to look at modular construction. Hospitality, specifically hotel construction, was a big one early on, though some of that interest has fallen off due to the pandemic's impacts on the industry.
"Where this is beneficial is those markets that have revenue on the back end … as well as the complexity of the build," he said. "If it's a pretty simple build on the interiors, you probably are just as efficient from a cost perspective to build it in the field."
Volumetric modular construction projects make up roughly 5% of Boldt's business, Huggett said. But accounting for use of modular construction on a smaller scale, such as specific building components, the method is used in almost every project.
McKenzie said Advocate Aurora is considering modular construction on some upcoming projects, though they may use the full volumetric method. She declined to get into detail on those future projects.
McKenzie said the building method makes the most sense where there's a lot of repetition involved, such as a row of patient rooms.
"Depending on the type of project, there are still going to be areas that probably are better to be built in the traditional method," she said. "But, wherever possible, I think we would definitely try this again."
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