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1960’s Modular Construction

1960’s Modular Construction

Quality, Consequences and the Construction Industrial Complex (part 191).       

What will it take to move the new building supply chain to modular construction? 

I was in San Antonio Texas recently and took a river boat trip that went past the 1960’s Hilton Palacio del Rio. So far who cares? Well, the tour guide spent time to tell the story of how this building was constructed. 

The Hilton Palacio del Rio is a 500-room, 21-story hotel in San Antonio that opened in 1968 for the World’s Fair. The building is notable for being a milestone in the use of modular building construction techniques.

Traditional construction methods prevented the hotel being completed in the short timeframe available prior to opening the World’s Fair on April 6, 1968. Therefore, alternative construction methods were on the table. The developer solution was: 

1. Traditional construction to build the first 4 floors.

2. Slip form construction for the services/elevator core.

3. All 500 guest rooms were constructed as modular units at an off-site location then lifted into place on site. 

4. The developer offered to not get paid if he delivered the building late. This is probably a story but I like the idea.  

The modular units were built complete with plumbing fixtures, lighting, art work, furnishings and even ash trays (it was the 60’s, so everyone smoked). In a televised event, the developer and his wife were the first people to check into and “ride” their hotel room, Room No. 522, into the hotel. 

All 500 rooms were lifted into place over 46 days and the building was completed in a record 202 working days. The hotel opened 5 days early on April 1, 1968.

Why is this interesting?

1. Building using off site modular methods lowers costs and increases quality. Time is money!

2. This was done in the 1960’s, so modular construction is not innovation, it is a proven concept. 

3. Modular, off-site construction in 2019 is not common practice. 

So, off site, modular construction was proven to work at high rise scale in the 1960’s and has not become common practice, Why? Anyone? 

I now have my tin foil hat on, is it because of:

1. Lobbying to protect union and construction jobs?

2. Cronyism and corruption? 

3. Just plain indifference and incompetence? 

IMHO, the growing building design and construction skills gap caused by demographic shifts will bring modular construction back as a necessary choice. However, unless owners purposefully chose modular construction plus demand the costs savings and quietly increments it can produce, there will be little change. 

The construction industries resistance to change is legend. Change must be demanded from the people with the money!

Video telling the Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel story: 


Twitter: @BLDWhisperer

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