Modular offices are an increasingly popular choice among companies looking for flexibility in their buildings. But what are they, and do they make sense for your business? Here’s everything you should know before deciding if modular offices are right for you.
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What Is a Modular Office Building?
Modular office buildings are structures designed and built-in sections, then transported to a final site for the finishing touches. Many modular office buildings come with additional options, such as tunnels, to connect different segments and allow for nearly limitless configuration within any site.
While the popular idea of a modular office building is a set of low, small structures, the reality is that modular buildings can be several floors high and sprawl to over 100,000 square feet. The wide variety in building sizes means they’re a viable option for most companies.
Most modular office buildings are nearly indistinguishable from traditionally-built structures once installed. The choice here is how you want to get and pay for a building, not the size, layout, or adherence to regulatory guidelines.
The primary factor separating modular offices from traditional structures is that each part of a modular office is built to stand independently. The standalone design means they have better structural integrity, and catastrophic damage to one section won’t compromise the rest of the building.
Types of Modular Buildings
There are generally two types of modular buildings: temporary and permanent.
In this context, temporary does not mean that a modular office is cheap or low-quality. Instead, it refers to the construction intent and the foundation, with the expectation that it probably won’t be on-site for more than a few years. Temporary modular buildings are one of the fastest ways of getting additional space for an office while you work on a long-term solution.
These offices go by several names, including trailers and portables. Temporary buildings tend to be one-floor high and may come elevated from the ground, making it easier to place them on a prepared surface like a gravel bed or in a parking lot.
Temporary modular offices are generally affordable and accessible. However, while they have electrical connections, they may not come with water or plumbing. Some do, but users might have to leave the building for anything involving water. This issue is one of the many reasons to pay attention to the specifics of a building when selecting it.
Temporary structures are also easy to redecorate as needed. Redecoration can make the interior significantly more luxurious and appropriate for meeting customers, showcasing projects, or giving certain employees lots of extra space to work in.
Ultimately, temporary offices are a good choice for companies that only need to be on-site for a while or who need space fast while working on another idea. As such, you often see modular offices at construction sites.
Lease and Co-op Options
Most people lease temporary offices instead of buying them outright. Construction companies may own the offices and keep using the same one, but other companies usually prefer to pay a flat rate and be done with it.
Leasing options are available from most business-oriented banks, but companies can avoid that route entirely and just pay the monthly or annual fees.
Co-op leasing options are also available and can take different forms, such as sharing space or obtaining partial office ownership. Whether this makes sense depends on your company’s status and needs, but most companies prefer a standard lease for temporary offices.
Estimated Length of a Temporary Modular Offices Life
The lifespan of temporary modular offices depends on the construction materials, environment, and upkeep. Most buildings in this category last at least two decades, while a higher-quality structure can last fifty years or more.
By the time a new modular office decays, construction technology will probably reduce the cost of replacement even further. Technology advancements can help provide long-term savings for a company while also giving an excellent opportunity to change the company layout, add areas, or otherwise customize things once the existing structures finally wear out.
Permanent modular offices are meant to stay in place once installed. The installation method doesn’t mean that you can’t move them later, but it’s better not to because they’re more secure. These are a good choice for businesses that expect to have ongoing space needs.
Permanent offices have several advantages over their temporary cousins, including longer lifespans. It makes more sense to invest in quality materials and construction for a building you plan to keep using.
Unlike temporary buildings where hookups vary, permanent modular offices almost always have full utility hookups and connections. On-site bathrooms and kitchens are possible, and there’s access to water for other industry-specific needs.
Permanent structures can also have additional components that aren’t worth installing in temporary facilities, like elevators. Modular construction techniques can help you create buildings more than a dozen floors tall, so this is a highly effective way of getting large structures.
Many companies buy several permanent offices simultaneously. Purchases can range from having a few separate offices or places to meet customers to constructing an entire business complex out of modular segments.
All permanent modular structures are a viable option for most businesses, but they show their real value when you’re scaling up in complexity. They’re also easier to rearrange than traditional buildings if you plan ahead, which is good if you want to adjust layouts later.
Modular offices are essentially permanent structures to banks, so most of the same financing options for regular construction are available. We’ll discuss the cost savings in more detail below, but modular offices usually cost much less than traditional construction. It’s often easier to get loans from a bank, adding to your saving methods.
Estimated Length of a Permanent Modular Offices Life
Most permanent modular buildings last at least thirty-five years, assuming they’re built and installed correctly. Better structures can last anywhere from fifty years to several centuries with proper care and upkeep. On average, permanent offices will last much longer than temporary ones, especially if the temporary ones move frequently.
The main factor affecting lifespan is how well you care for the building over the years. Replacing the siding and roofing as necessary will significantly extend the structure’s lifespan while maintaining even temperatures with HVAC systems can help prevent weather damage.
Why Modular Office Buildings?
Modular office buildings have several advantages over traditional structures, including the speed of building and installation, their high-quality standards, and the cost savings. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Modular office buildings have two speed advantages over other structures.
The most obvious benefit is that you can construct a modular office while you’re still preparing the construction site. Once the site is ready, you can ship the finished building and install it in place. These building techniques significantly reduce the time it takes to add any office to the site.
It doesn’t take long to install most permanent modular offices because they’re already built. Once you attach them to the foundation and add utility hookups, anything else is just small details.
The savings are even more apparent if you’re installing a temporary building. It’s often possible to get a temporary unit onto a prepared area like the corner of a parking lot in as little as one day. If you need to clear a site and add a foundation, that’s still going to be a quick job.
As long as you have the room for them, temporary modular buildings are essentially on-demand office space at a drastically lower cost than new construction. Adding temporary structures is most viable in areas with lower land-use fees; urbanized areas usually do better with permanent structures.
The second speed advantage is the actual speed of construction. Most modular buildings go through assembly in a large factory area, which minimizes the time to put them together. Realistically, most structures will come together in 2-3 months, and a manufacturer can often work on several buildings simultaneously.
Modular offices are often better for the environment than traditional construction. They’re built in a dedicated production area, making it easier to prevent spills and runoff that could later affect the environment. It’s also easy to choose and use environmentally-friendly materials, processes, and components.
Some facilities even gather and use solar power to help meet their electricity needs. Many aspects of construction are surprisingly low-power processes, so this is more viable than people outside the construction industry often realize.
Many people associate modular offices with being flimsy, but that’s a legacy of older construction standards. Modern structures adhere to strict state and federal guidelines because they can’t even go into place if they don’t.
The standards are perhaps most obvious in FEMA’s report on Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In it, FEMA noted that areas with modular construction (including homes, not just businesses) withstood the hurricane significantly better than site-built properties.
It’s been decades since that report, and modular offices have gotten even sturdier since. We touched on this briefly above, but there are two primary reasons modular offices hold up better than traditional structures.
The first reason is that all modular offices are built to stand independently. This gives larger structures and complexes significant advantages in durability, including the fact that one destroyed section won’t affect the rest of the building.
The second reason is that modular buildings could go into place anywhere in the country. Accordingly, manufacturers usually build to the highest structural standards. That might be overkill for areas with few disasters and temperate weather, but it also means they can sell and ship anywhere.
These high standards are a big reason that permanent offices, in particular, can have such a long lifespan. Fifty years is decent for any commercial building, but something that can last for centuries with the proper care is an excellent investment for any business that plans to exist on that site long-term.
Even better, it doesn’t cost much more to get a high-quality modular office. Good materials always cost more, but it’s rarely to the point of being a significant cost multiplier for modular structures.
Modular offices have several advantages in flexibility over site-built structures. The most apparent flexibility comes from temporary structures where you can often get hundreds of additional square feet of office space overnight. That’s something traditional construction simply can’t offer.
Modular offices also allow for better indoor flexibility, especially if you plan ahead. You can make the interior as customizable as the exterior for minimal change in cost and production time, which offers fantastic long-term value for the structure.
Most modular offices expect you to replace elements like the siding and the roof more regularly, so they’re built to make it easy to replace and repair areas as necessary. That ties together with better structural integrity.
Finally, modular offices are available in a huge variety of sizes and styles. While simple prefabricated rooms are cheap, you can get larger and more complex structures to fit your company’s unique needs. Modular offices are not one-size-fits-all.
Modular offices usually cost significantly less than on-site construction. A big part of this is the time it takes to build them. Since they have a dedicated factory environment, they can use processes and techniques that you can’t apply to site-built locations. You can also build things simultaneously to clear the site, so the entire job gets done faster.
You can realize the most savings by purchasing existing designs and structures, but even custom designs are usually far more affordable than traditional construction.
There’s only one major area where modular offices can have costs go up, and that’s transportation. If you’re building something across the country and need to transport it, that’s going to be a noticeable price tag. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to find something reasonably close, which will help keep costs down.
Temporary offices also offer cost savings. They’re usually affordable for the number of square feet you get, with reasonable rental fees and support from the company providing it. It’s generally cheaper to get a temporary module than to rent another office somewhere in your area, which is why some companies move entirely to modular structures.
More Favorable Depreciation
Finally, modular office buildings tend to have favorable depreciation. Permanent structures, in particular, can last so long that they don’t lose their value too quickly. When you add details like the improved sturdiness and the ability to reconfigure the building relatively easily, the entire facility becomes more attractive than a traditional site-built facility.
Pros and Cons
Modular structures have many benefits, but they’re not the right choice for everyone. Size limits, in particular, can determine whether modular structures make sense for you. Here are the main pros and cons of getting a modular office building.
- Availability: Modular offices are cheaper and faster to get than site-built structures. They are a good choice for companies where either time or money are a major limiting factor.
- Durability: Modular offices are sturdy and meet all regulations for new construction. Even the lowest-quality options will last decades with care, while higher-quality buildings can last centuries. They hold up remarkably well in disasters.
- Flexibility: Modular offices are available in many sizes and styles, complete with connections between multiple buildings to create a larger complex.
- Better Wide Than Tall: Most modular offices work best to a maximum of three stories tall. You can build higher, but anything like a skyscraper is probably better with traditional techniques until modular techniques improve further.
- Standard Design Options: Modular offices are excellent when you’re using a standard or near-standard design, but they’re not as fast or easy if you need something with a particularly unusual shape. Anything too unique may require traditional construction.
- Other Technologies: The main competition for modular offices is 3D-printed structures. They still use emerging technology, and modular designs are better. However, the next few years could change the balance of what makes sense for companies.
How Much Does a Modular Office Cost?
The three main components of cost for a modular office are the size of the building(s), the overall quality of the materials, and how far you need to move them.
Size is one of the most significant factors determining the overall cost of a project. Many businesses cite costs based on square feet more than anything else.
On the lowest end, a cheap temporary unit can cost about $20 per square foot. For decent quality in temporary or permanent structures, they’re more likely to cost at least $50 per square foot. On the high end, a modular office can cost up to $200 per square foot. Most people don’t go quite that far, but the options exist.
Quality of Materials
Material quality is another major factor when figuring out the actual cost of a modular building. Better materials are universally more expensive. However, this can also be an area for cost savings. If you get an office with a strong interior, you can usually replace regions on the outside as they fail and dramatically extend the lifespan of the building.
Many people will replace parts of a modular office at least once throughout its life – possibly several times. Like the internal structure, choosing high-quality materials could mean that you’ll end up paying less over time. A roofing option that lasts fifty years and costs twice as much as something that only lasts twenty years is ultimately more affordable.
Furnishings are usually a minor part of the overall cost for a modular office. Things like wall colors, decorations, and other comforts are functionally negligible compared to the cost of the structure itself, so they don’t factor into this equation.
Modular Office Options?
There are many options for modular offices, but most people prefer to default to standard measurements.
Most modular offices are 12 feet, 13 feet, or 13 feet and 9 inches wide. Buildings can go up to about 16 feet, but rarely much wider than this. These widths allow buildings to fit in 1-2 lanes on most roads, which is enough to pass through tunnels and other areas.
The most common length for a modular office segment is 60 feet, which is about the maximum that’s easy to fit on a transport truck. Smaller structures are also available. Some companies build up to 72 feet at a time, but these aren’t legal to transport in all areas.
Customers who want bigger structures or rooms may need to ship them in more pieces and assemble them on site. This added step slightly slows the construction rate. However, since the parts are built to fit together, assembly remains generally straightforward.
The height is heavily standardized throughout the industry. Most states have a maximum transportation height of 13 feet and 6 inches, enough to pass safely under bridges and other structures. Modular offices almost always need to fit this, so they’re usually closer to 10 or 11 feet to give space for the truck to hold them.
Custom designs and shapes are easy on modular offices as long as no single segment is wider than 16 feet, longer than 60 feet, and taller than about eleven feet. Companies have extensive flexibility in this range, including connecting several structures into a single large room.
Exterior designs are mainly up to customers. Most companies can install almost any type of exterior you want, though some are safer and easier to install on-site instead of at the factory.
Like most structures, modular offices require solid foundations. This can be as simple as preparing a sturdy gravel bed or as complicated as a full concrete setup. The most appropriate type of foundation depends on the building.
Elevated offices, including many temporary structures, may not require a permanent foundation at all. These are easy to install in many parking lots and similar flat areas.
Additional Factors to Consider
Site location, shipping concerns, and structure complexities are the other factors to consider before getting a modular office.
Where is your site, and does it make sense to put a modular office there? Sure, temporary offices offer near-instant office space, but that doesn’t help if you’re in the middle of a crowded city and there’s nowhere to put the office. Similarly, placing the office hundreds of miles in the countryside can significantly increase transportation costs.
In other words, some locations are simply better for modular offices than others.
We discussed some of the issues with shipping above, but there are a few more concerns. For example, can you reach your building site with a transportation truck? If there are any narrow roads or sharp corners, modular buildings may be too big to transport.
The prices themselves aren’t a big deal unless you’re shipping an especially large difference because it’s still cheaper than constructing on-site. Long-distance shipping, on the other hand, can make modular offices too expensive.
Transportation is the hidden cost for a modular office building. Put simply, it takes time and money to transport an office building, either entirely assembled or in large pieces, to a construction site.
Alternative Building Solutions, a Florida company that supplies modular structures, reports a real cost of about $5 to $10 per mile for transport. Most of their customers pay up to $5000 for a relatively short move or upwards of $20,000 for a long trip.
That kind of transportation fee cuts away at a modular office’s other cost savings, so this is a serious consideration when you’re deciding how and where to buy from. Only you can determine if it’s worth getting a higher-quality structure from further away.
Don’t hesitate to ask about opportunities to tour modular offices from a company before you buy them. Past customers may be willing to open their doors and let you walk around, too. Every company wants to convince you that they’re the best possible choice, but there’s no substitute for an in-person examination of their buildings.
Finally, there are other complexities to consider. Factors like different exterior styles and decorations or odd shapes can impact how long it takes to build the structure. Particularly complex structures may need to go up in several stages, affecting matters like construction timetables and cash flow.
Ordering a modular office is different from buying a site-built structure, and both are harder than renting or purchasing an existing building. Expect to devote some time to picking designs.
Are you still unsure whether modular offices are the right choice? Explore the following answers to some of the most common questions.
Do All Modular Offices Look Alike?
No. While most modular offices are ultimately rectangles, they can have various interior and exterior design choices. The range of options sets them apart and allows you to customize your building to fit your needs.
Do Modular Offices Look Temporary?
Modular offices only look temporary if you set them up that way. Permanent structures are nearly indistinguishable from site-built offices, but temporary modules do tend to look a little unfinished. This is easy to alleviate by putting a simple wall or other decorations near the bottom of the structure.
What Factors Should I Consider When Choosing A Modular Office Supplier?
Look for reliable suppliers with experience with offices who offer a good range of materials and options. Companies that only want to sell one design may have reasonable prices, but it’s crucial to think about the impact of office design on employee productivity. Companies that do custom designs are often better.
How Is Modular Construction Different From Traditional Construction?
Modular construction uses many of the same techniques as traditional construction but assembles things off-site in a purpose-built facility. Having such a facility allows builders to assemble things faster and easier than a generic job site allows. The buildings themselves are fundamentally similar once complete because they need to meet state and federal guidelines.
What’s The Difference Between Modular Offices and Prefab Offices?
Modular offices are usually complete as distinct components when shipped. The standalone design is a major part of why they’re so durable compared to other options.
Prefab offices are usually shipped in parts and assembled on-site in large pieces.
Of course, some buildings are a mix of modular and prefab components.
How Long Does It Take to Construct a Modular Office?
Most modular offices take two to three months for construction. Build time increases if you’re using an intricate custom design but decreases if you’re buying something small and simple.
Construction for modular offices usually coincides with preparing a foundation for the building. Many existing flat areas are suitable for modular offices if you can use the space, while others can work fine if you add crushed rock or gravel and ensure proper drainage.
On-site construction is extremely fast, often complete within a single day. Construction times go up if you add more details on-site, such as elaborate outdoor fixtures, pathways, gardens, or other design elements.
Can a Modular Office Building Be Eco-friendly or “Green”?
Yes. It’s easy to build modular offices out of eco-friendly materials. It’s also better for the environment to assemble them in a dedicated facility because that can help minimize waste in energy and materials.
Do Modular Office Buildings Come with Bathrooms?
Most modular office buildings come with bathrooms. Permanent structures nearly always have these unless your design excludes them. Temporary offices may or may not have bathrooms, but higher-quality ones usually do. These are complete with hookups for water and sewer connections.
Why Do Businesses Buy Modular Offices?
Businesses buy modular offices for many reasons. Some want temporary space while they get a permanent structure, while others like the speed and cost savings available. Other companies only need temporary offices because they move around a lot, so having a portable structure makes far more sense.
Who Should I Contact If I’m Interested in a Modular Office?
The best providers for modular offices are usually local because this helps avoid the shipping fees discussed above.
If you want a modular office, look in your area and determine how many companies are within a reasonable range. Looking up to 1000 miles away is appropriate for most businesses and should give you a decent number of providers. Make sure you’re looking for companies that specifically offer offices, not mobile homes.
From there, look for reviews on each company and sort them in order from best to worst. Once you have these ratings, look at the types of buildings they offer and whether they can meet your needs. Try to get at least three candidates, and more if possible.
Don’t forget to discuss this with as many employees of your company as possible. People in various roles may have valuable input and suggestions for the final design, and ignoring them could drastically reduce your potential productivity.
After figuring out your options, contact these companies to get more information and see if you can schedule a tour of any buildings they’ve made. It’s worth a 1-2 day trip to see their structures in person and get more information. Make sure to visit each company still on your list, even if you like the first one.
When you’re done with your visits, get some bids for your project and talk things over with the rest of your company. Pick the solution that meets the needs of as many people as possible, and move on from there.