One way to find out about innovation in the modular construction industry is to see what start-ups are doing. I talked with people at six young companies (all less than three years old) to discover the exciting things they’re getting up to..
“Basically, if you can build it, you can build it with Crate,” says Amanda Gattenby, VP of Development at Crate Modular — a company that turns shipping containers into habitable buildings.
Crate’s initial projects were to replace schools’ temporary classrooms. Now, in addition to schools, they also work on hospitality projects, commercial food court and beer garden projects, as well as housing. The housing includes ADUs (accessory dwelling units), affordable housing, and homeless shelters.
The company was founded in 2018 and acquired a couple of modular companies, one with a factory in Carson, California, USA. This is where Crate now transforms its shipping containers.
“We use shipping containers that have come one way, containing dry goods only,” says Gattenby. “Every container has a serial number, so you can track when and where it was built, where it’s travelled, all the inspections it’s had. Often, the containers we receive are only 90 days old. We also do our own testing, to make sure the container is up to our standards.”
Because the US imports way more than it exports, Gattenby says there are 4 million empty containers available in the country. This means Crate can be very picky about which containers to use in their projects.
The sustainability aspect is important to Crate.
“Containers are a recycled resource, and they’re very durable. Shipping containers exceed the California building code for structural and seismic by several times. The resulting buildings require little up-keep. And they have a great thermal envelope, which makes them energy efficient,” says Gattenby. “The steel construction and the well-insulated envelope also mean that the buildings have very good acoustic properties. There’s no floor-to-floor or side-to-side sound transmission between units.”
To turn become habitable buildings, the containers go through an assembly line in Crate’s 110,000 sq ft factory.
“We start out with the demolition, the cutting and grinding, then the roof structures, then we frame them out, we put windows in. We put a structural steel c-channel around the perimeter of the box. This becomes an interstitial space where we run our MEP [mechanical, engineering, plumbing], and it also adds rigidity. So we’re able to cut out both sides of a 40 ft container so it’s a completely clear 40 ft span. The containers come out complete with painted drywall finishing, electrical and plumbing finish and trim in place, cabinets, countertops, tubs, bathroom accessories.”
Once all the materials have been procured and the line starts, Gattenby says it takes between 10 and 14 days for each container to be completed.
“We’re fast. For example, for a 150-bed homeless shelter we built, we drew the plans in 60 days, we got the state-wide approval in California in 48 hours. We fabricated it in 4 months, and it was set on the foundation in 4 days.”
The company also increases the speed of construction by re-using designs.
“We have a catalogue of buildings that we’ve built before. So if any of those meet a client’s needs, they can save time and money because we’ve built it before. We can replicate and leverage that knowledge,” Gattenby says. “We’re really trying to shift the paradigm to buildings as products.”
Founded last year, C-Cube appeals to a niche market — that for ‘clean rooms’ in the life sciences industries.
Biotech or pharmaceutical companies have very specific requirements for their working environments. When growing cell cultures, for example, they don’t want specks of dust or pollen from the air falling into their petri dishes. In a clean room, fresh air is filtered as it enters the room, and air is constantly removed as fresh air enters. And this needs to happen with minimal air turbulence. The room must also be airtight, so unfiltered air doesn’t seep in.
There are international standards for clean rooms. For example, Christophe Mermaz, Co-Founder and Managing Director at C-Cube, explains, “For an ISO 7 room, all the air in the room must be changed every two minutes.”
The air entering the clean room passes through HEPA filters that capture 99.97% of particles as small as 0.3 microns. (An average human hair has a diameter of between 50 and 70 microns, so we’re talking really small here.)