CRE N Illinois

With unveiling of modular prototype, Skender hints at future of assembled buildings

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More than one hundred years ago, the assembly line revolutionized the manufacturing process. In fact, Henry Ford’s first implementation cut the time to build a car from half a day to half an hour. If this same template were applied to the erection of buildings, the savings in time and cost could truly transform the industry.

Yesterday, Chicago-based Skender unveiled a prototype of a smart apartment module, demonstrating how the melding of design, assembly and construction has the potential to disrupt the building process. This is manufactured construction for the 21st Century, intended to make the construction of buildings safer, faster, cheaper and more technology and environmentally friendly.

Skender unveiled the prototype in their new manufacturing facility on the southwest side of Chicago. Located at 3348 S. Pulaski Avenue, the 105,560-square-foot space now under construction will be able to turn incoming materials into finished building modules in as little as five days.

Skender launched the advanced manufacturing company, Skender Manufacturing, in March 2018 and hired Peter Murray as president. Murray has more than 20 years of advanced manufacturing, operations and commercial experience from stints as an operations consultant with digital health company Cohero Health, as well as from the management consulting company he founded and as president and COO for Guerdon Modular Buildings.

Dan Conley, director of manufacturing operations, and Mike Mulrooney, P.E., director of engineering, also recently joined Skender Manufacturing to provide a multi-pronged approach to building manufacturing. The company plans to announce the hiring of a supply chain director in the near future.

The idea of modular building is that the construction process takes place in a controlled environment, where the design, building and technology processes are all standardized. This approach also cuts down on weather-related delays as the factory floor is climate controlled.

Once completed, Skender’s manufacturing facility will assemble building modules on standardized steel chasses of either 12x36 or 15x40 feet, though the modules themselves can be smaller depending on the design. As work is completed on each module, the chassis moves through the factory until the module faces final inspection, is shrink-wrapped and then is sent to the construction site for installation.

The new plant, which will employ up to 125 people, will have a fabrication mindset, not a construction one. Murray, Conley and  Mulrooney all have manufacturing experience, a mentality that will filter down to those employees as they install pre-fabricated construction components into the building modules.

“We’re not doing construction, we’re doing assembly,” said Tim Swanson, chief design officer. “If there’s a saw or a tape measure, we did it wrong. When everything bolts together, it has to be perfect.”

Manufactured construction already exists, but it can be rather fractured. Currently, most fabrication facilities are overseas, which requires the added expense of transportation. Once the building materials get to where they are going, they often still have to be fully assembled and there is generally a third party general contractor implementing someone else’s design. The vertically integrated approach that Skender is putting into place hopes to solve any miscommunication or other issues that can arise.

“That’s the big idea coming out of the vertically integrated model, that we’re only designing things once, and we’re designing it to a deeper level of detail,” said Skender CEO Mark Skender. “A separate shop drawing, a separate fabrication drawing...these are things we are looking to make history.”

The prototype module that Skender displayed showed some of the design approaches that come with manufactured construction. Built as a tech-enabled apartment, the module is made of noncombustible steel frames and studs engineered to precise tolerances so the modules will fit together perfectly in the final installation. The shower stall is finished with a waterproof panel rather than tile, as wet components like grout add to the manufacturing timeline—though these finishes can be installed if the design calls for it.

“We have already uncovered several manufacturing efficiencies through the creation of this prototype, including the ability to install smart apartment tech at a fraction of the cost it would normally take to install in an already-existing unit,” said Murray. “Our team is proud to have accomplished this first step toward full activity in our factory to produce the smart affordable buildings the city of Chicago needs.”

Skender partnered with other Chicago-based companies on the materials that went into the prototype, and that will go into future modules. The decision to base the manufacturing facility in the city’s southwest side supplements this localized approach, and creates a template for future endeavors. If this can work in Chicago, the thinking goes, it can work anywhere.

“We have the strictest code in the country, backwards regulation and 51 mayors that dictate whatever they want to dictate,” said Swanson. “Standing up a company here and being successful is more about the process.”

Skender is already in the design-for-manufacturing phase on healthcare and multifamily projects, including an apartment building in the West Loop. The modular manufacturing method is expected to reduce the timeline of traditional building by up to 50 percent and generate up to 15 percent project cost savings.