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Ontario ICI contractor pivots entire business, moves to modular

COVID-19 presented significant challenges to the construction industry, requiring strict protocols, onsite testing, and the need to maintain physical distance between workers. One Ontario-based contractor, BECC Modular, found itself facing a steep decline in commercial construction projects during the pandemic. In response, the company made a complete pivot from traditional onsite construction to becoming a fully integrated design-build modular manufacturer and general contractor.

Peter Schoettle, the director of sales at BECC Modular, explains that initially, they were unsure how to address the decline. However, Schoettle recognized a demand for medical buildings to combat the pandemic and saw modular construction as a better alternative to the tents used in the early days of the crisis. With the support of CEO Ali Ozden, Schoettle began researching the market potential and technical aspects of modular construction. Ozden had already been considering a move to modular construction before the pandemic and embarked on fact-finding visits to countries with a high percentage of modular buildings.

BECC Modular, with the help of external experts, started the transition to modular construction by specializing in the delivery and assembly of cold-formed steel units with a maximum of 12 storeys. The shift involved intense brainstorming and a few anxious moments, according to Schoettle. In 2021, BECC Modular leased a vacant 5,574-square-metre factory in Ancaster, Ontario, which was equipped with cranes and other necessary equipment. The location provided close proximity to steel suppliers and access to skilled steelworkers in the region.

The company initially pursued small-scale projects to gain experience and knowledge before venturing into larger and more complex ones. As its business portfolio expanded, BECC Modular acquired additional leasable space in an adjacent building to meet market demand. The company is currently producing units for affordable housing projects across Ontario, including buildings in Ottawa, Sarnia, and Chatham-Kent.

BECC Modular employs approximately 100 skilled tradespeople, including steelworkers, drywall installers, electricians, welders, and tile layers. Additionally, the company has project managers, procurement personnel, support staff, in-house architects, and engineers who collaborate with external architects.

Describing themselves as a manufacturer, BECC Modular assembles units daily on its four production lines. The assembly process involves erecting the outer frame, inserting the light gauge steel, and installing electrical wiring, plumbing, drywall, flooring, and other components. Once assembled, the units are shrink-wrapped and transported to a holding facility or directly to the building site. Modular construction offers benefits such as minimal material waste, precise installations, and CSA A277 certification.

Employee comfort and safety are also prioritized, as the factory provides heating in winter and air conditioning in summer. Workers have access to clean washrooms and a cafeteria, unlike the challenges faced by those working in outdoor construction sites.

While BECC Modular offers turnkey services, including foundations and site work, they aim to partner with general contractors to focus on manufacturing and installation. The Modular Building Institute, an international trade association for the modular construction sector, also seeks closer collaboration between modular and traditional contractors.

Tom Hardiman, the executive director of the Modular Building Institute, believes that modular construction will not replace traditional onsite construction entirely but expresses enthusiasm for the industry's growth. Modular construction currently accounts for about six percent of North American construction volume, with the need for medical buildings after the pandemic being a major driver of this growth. Other contributing factors include skilled worker shortages and the need to address housing shortages. Hardiman notes that while six percent may seem modest, modular construction's market share has doubled in the past five years and tripled in the past seven years. Although North America lags behind some European countries, which offer incentives to promote modular construction, Hardiman believes progress is being made.