Modular construction for healthcare: A remedy for increased flexibility in care

July 3, 2019 Jim McPhilemy

3 project management takeaways that help deliver modular project success


Faced with increased demand at emergency departments across the country, healthcare operators are seeking solutions to enhance emergency care capabilities efficiently and cost-effectively. Healthcare is beginning to embrace modular construction as a tactic that can help deliver new space faster and more economically than a traditional build.

Modular construction—a building practice where the structure is prefabricated off-site and delivered for assembly—is rising. In fact, the number of new modular commercial projects in North America is expected to nearly double over the next five years.

At Stantec, we’ve seen modular embraced in many project types, from hospitality and residential to education and labs. The healthcare sector, with its stringent standards for life-safety requirements and building-infrastructure systems, has been cautiously exploring the benefits of modular.


Modular construction in healthcare requires careful design planning to make sure modules support clinical needs.


Ironically, the advantages created by fabricating units off-site (speed to delivery, reduced disruption at the project site) present unique challenges in healthcare since healthcare standards need to be maintained at all construction stages. Careful design planning is also needed to make sure the modules support clinical program needs.

But, if managed correctly, modular building can generate great benefits for healthcare operators looking to expand or develop new space.

_q_tweetable:If managed correctly, modular building practices can generate great benefits for healthcare operators looking to expand or develop new space._q_One example is Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. As 1 of 3 level-1 trauma centers in the state, the hospital had a 35 percent increase in emergency department visits over the past decade. As a result, there was a need to expand efficiently.

Through our years-long relationship with Cooper University Health Care as project manager for their portfolio, the team tapped our Program & Project Management group to manage a fast-track solution. The result? A 5,000-square-foot modular expansion to the hospital’s existing emergency department with space for 10 new exam rooms.

We coordinated the design with the architect (Ballinger) to assess the viability of a traditional expansion vs. modular construction. Building options were weighed against requirements for a cost-effective solution that would work well with the limited space on site. Once modular was identified as the ideal solution, we vetted modular construction companies and managed construction and integration on behalf of Cooper.

Through coordination projects like this, we’ve found that modular provides a great opportunity for the healthcare market. Key aspects to ensure project success include:


1. Outline objectives early

The up-front definition of project requirements and specifications is critical in making sure all project partners are aligned. This is especially important once a project is bid to contractors so that project demands and expectations are clear early on.

While this is best practice for any project, it becomes especially relevant with modular. Since modular construction operates much like a design-build, where those building the project are playing a central role in design, the design and construction process tends to move very quickly.

To balance this, we find a stringent outline of requirements, specifications, and goals is essential in defining success and eliminating gray area. For example, at Cooper University Hospital we provided clear guidance over project roles and areas of focus.

Since this project was an expansion of an existing facility, it was important to outline where the new building ends and the existing space begins. This helped define which contractor was responsible for the connecting utilities entering and exiting the new building and on which side of the building those connections takes place.


A modular expansion to Cooper University Hospital’s existing emergency department created space for 10 new exam rooms.


2. Take a hands-on approach

For effective project management, there is no substitute to active involvement during all phases.

For the Cooper project, this meant frequent visits to the modular facility in Pennsylvania with the architect to maintain progress, benchmark against goals, and keep our client in the loop. This helped with quality control and informed our strategy around milestones and plans for ultimate close-out.  

In addition to integrating ourselves with the prefabrication process, the team was also embedded on site with our client. That face-to-face interaction for a project of this scale and speed has proven essential in addressing issues right away, no matter how big or small.

For example, this allowed us to immediately remedy items like receptacle and stormwater tie-in locations. These elements are generally addressed during construction walk-throughs with architects, contractors, and staff. But when the modular building arrives, it’s typically the first time hospital staff see the building and visualize how they will operate in the new space.

Inevitably, there will be user requests, and the fact that we were on site allowed us to provide seamless direction.


3. Be an educator and resource

Although the modular market is rising, it’s important to remember that knowledge and expertise can vary among project partners and local municipalities. Stringent project requirements can help make sure construction and design partners are fit for the job. And close interaction with local decision-makers leading inspections and permitting can help ensure a smooth road to occupancy.

For the Cooper University Hospital project, we partnered with the State of New Jersey’s license and inspections department to make sure their team was comfortable with this unique building process. In a traditional project, local inspectors will visit at each stage to ensure aspects like the structure and systems are up to code. Since much of this project was built off-site, those typical milestone inspections were not an option locally.

Instead, the state’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) required that the construction manager hire a third-party inspector to track progress at the modular facility in Pennsylvania. This helped provide DCA with confidence that standards were being met and provided local inspectors with enough background to conduct a thorough final inspection.

Success through modular

Through these tactics, we’ve been able to help Cooper University Hospital deliver an expanded facility for enhanced patient care. In fact, within the first week of opening, the physicians and nurses at Cooper University Hospital were able to meet their target patient quota.

About the Author

Jim McPhilemy

Jim McPhilemy is a vice president based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who helps find the most economic solutions that will meet the needs of their facilities. Jim throws himself into the team dynamic, and he thinks everybody should consider embracing and engaging in that approach.

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