A New England prefabricator, KBS Builders, is showing that wood offers agility and versatility when it comes to factory-built solutions. Once focused solely on single-family homes, the Maine-based company is expanding into multifamily and, most recently, school construction using high-performance light-frame wood modules. And it’s proving in these new markets that prefab construction and mass customization doesn’t have to mean bland, repetitive design.
While the arguments for boosting efficiency through prefabricated construction are compelling—McKinsey & Company estimates the sector could boost productivity by as much as 60% using prefab—making things pencil out can be challenging. The special sauce for KBS Builders, according to Matthew Sullivan, vice president for business development, is the company’s ability to tailor its product to custom design requirements for each client and use—while still capitalizing on replicability and repeatability to realize cost and schedule efficiencies.
“Many modular providers force you to use an existing set of plans or templates,” Sullivan says. “This is not the case at KBS. From the beginning, we work closely with our clients to produce a taylored product built to their unique needs.” Customization might include modifications to existing plans or “modularizing” an original design in collaboration with KBS’s inhouse experts.
Staying somewhat local to keep the size of the business manageable and scalable and taking advantage of the flexibility prefab light-frame wood offers have also helped with its success.
“We’ve always built everything with wood and really focused on the New England market,” Sullivan says. “We offer a lot of customization and we work hand-in-hand with developers, general contractors, architects, and builders to tailor and produce the exact type of modular structure they are seeking. So it’s not a mass production line but more of a customized mass production line that takes full advantage of the rapid constructability and thermal benefits of wood. We find our ability to pivot and work to different design requirements has kept us competitive.”
That competitiveness has allowed the company to take on diverse projects beyond single-family homes, including the prefabrication of 12,000 square feet of new classroom space for South Burlington School District in Vermont, which was funded in part by the United States Department of Energy under the Advanced Building Construction (ABC) Initiative. Working in partnership with Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), KBS built a total of six classrooms including four group rooms for two elementary schools using zero-energy modular (ZEM) design. The buildings will be made up of 24 volumetric light-frame-wood modules total, which were manufactured in South Paris, Maine, and shipped to the two school sites in South Burlington. The modules were assembled within two days after delivery.
The lead architect for the project, David Mentzer, a senior associate at Dore + Whittier, says that “summer slammer projects” like this have a very narrow window of opportunity for onsite work—and the prefab approach can make a significant difference.
“The project had a very tight site, and solving problems related to fire resistance ratings, property setbacks, and proximity to the existing school, as well as crane operations, egress, existing grades, and stormwater management were all affected by the site configuration,” Mentzer says. “Prefabrication allowed us to advance portions of the construction prior to the end of the school year by having the classroom modules fabricated in a shop while kids were still in school.” This means that site prep and then module assembly can hit the ground running when the last bell of the school year rings, with ample time for the project to be complete and ready for use by students when they return in the fall.
Architects can prepare themselves to use a prefabricated approach by learning how modular procurement is and will be regulated and permitted in their region, specifically with respect to co compliance and inspection, Mentzer says. Jurisdictions where modular construction and procurement are built into the regulatory environment make it easier to navigate than in places where this construction modality is not clearly addressed by regulations.
When it comes to schools, he sees prefab as a design trend that is only set to grow: “Twenty-first-century learning in general has more to do with educational delivery and skills development, but the learning environments for this pedagogical model tend to have a wider range of space types, sizes, and configurations that can address different size groups and learning activities,” Mentzer says. “Prefab wood can help meet these more flexible and emerging needs.”
KBS Builders’ expansion into schools is based on a proven track record of residential prefab wood construction. The firm is also turning its attention to how mass customization can help tackle affordability challenges in the region.
“I’m super bullish on the potential of the offsite construction model to help with the affordable housing challenge, and I think we’ll see even further growth as market acceptance of this approach to building picks up speed,” Sullivan says.
Martha’s Vineyard may not be the first location that comes to mind for affordable housing, but that’s one place where KBS has helped realize more cost-efficient housing through prefab modular wood construction.
“We just finished an affordable housing project there to build eight duplex units to house service workers,” Sullivan says. “Not only were we able to save money through a shorter timeline and streamlined construction process, but we also worked within the historic specifications for buildings in a region known for its strict design uniformity and guidelines. This is something that could be difficult to do with modular, but through careful planning we were able to achieve it.”
Sullivan sees more of these types of affordable multifamily, school and commercial projects on the horizon.
“We’ve got other commercial projects we’re bidding on,” he says. “We want to do more affordable housing. We think it’s a great sector for modular. And light-frame wood construction is a great fit for our prefab approach—we work exclusively with lumber-built modules and we are also kicking around the idea of expanding into mass timber. I think the secret to our success is, and will continue to be, our ability to remain nimble.”