Revolutionary Rez: New Kids In The Blocks

SEE PHOTOS AT BOTTOM OF THIS ARTICLE

“We dream for builders, and build for dreamers.” – Barry Zekelman, President of Zekelman Industries/Z-Modular

This past February, during its ground-breaking ceremony, The Scene urged readers to view the college’s new residence building as “one of the largest Lego projects you’ve ever seen in your life”.

On November 12, that scenario was on full display, as a mid-construction open house exhibited the piece-by-piece assembly method being used to create the new, 512-bed dormitory.

The five-storey-tall building is being assembled, unit by unit, from pre-fabricated, steel-box structures.

Originally – pre-pandemic – it had been slated to be completed at about this time of the year, and be ready for occupancy by the New Year.

Construction and modular-unit manufacturing delays arising from the pandemic have now pushed that finish-date back to mid-July, with occupancy by the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year (next September).

The college’s phenomenal enrolment growth during the past half-decade (chiefly in the form of international students), coupled with the local shortage of affordable rental housing, made the expansion of on-campus accommodations a necessity.

The $23 million project – like the existing Quittenton Hall residence – is being developed by a private-sector company, the Toronto-based Global Education Mihome (GEM) corporation. It will recoup its investment by acting as the landlord/manager of the new residence.

It is the construction method – unit-by-unit pre-fabrication at a factory in Kitchener, trucked to the site, and hoisted into place – that was the feature attraction at the November 12th open house.

The pre-fabrication company is Z-Modular, a subsidiary company of Zekelman Industries.

During the past several years, Barry and Stephanie Zekelman (and their company and foundation) have become major patrons and partners of the college. They donated $5 million to St. Clair several years ago, leading to the naming of the School of Business and Information Technology in their honour (including the new Academic Tower that is currently under construction). They also donated an indoor tennis facility to the new Sports Park.

During her remarks at the event on the 12th, college President Patti France reflected, “St. Clair College is thrilled to be partnering with the GEM Corporation, Z-Modular and our long-time patrons, the Zekelmans, in the development of this new home-away-from-home for our students.

“Strictly from the perspective of the unique construction method, in addition to being a residential complex, this is going to prove to be something of an educational site.

“I have no doubt that our faculty and students in such programs as Architectural Technology, Interior Design, Civil and Construction Engineering Technology and several trades-related fields will be examining the modular construction method for many years to come.

“And,” France added, “I suspect that those won’t be the only people who will be seeking tours of the facility during the next several years. Given this area’s much-publicized shortage of multiple-density residential housing, I believe that many prospective property developers will be dropping by to examine the merits of this affordable, convenient, expandable, and relatively rapid construction method. And if that fosters some off-campus, private-sector construction of new apartment buildings, that would be of great service to our students too.”

Z-Modular’s website (https://www.z-modular.com/) brags of 50 percent faster project completion (because its in-factory building is not disrupted or delayed by such factors as weather at a “conventional” outdoor construction site), 98 percent “greater project predictability”, and 100 percent customer satisfaction.

Further, it notes, 90 percent of its modules are completed in-factory. Barry Zekelman told the audience that many of the requirements of municipal building inspections can actually be conducted on the factory floor, before the units are even shipped to their final site.

For the most part, once on-site, the “Lego blocks” just have to be plugged into the pre-arranged electrical, heating/ventilation and plumbing systems; and drywalled, painted and furnished.

Although St. Clair’s residence – the first Z-Modular, multi-density residential complex in Canada – is only five storeys tall, Z-Modular can stack its pre-fabbed units as high as 30 floors.

The construction method is also viewed as more environmentally friendly, because the pre-fabbing must be so well planned that excessive raw materials do not have to be ordered, the company recycles almost all cast-aside items in its factory, and materials are not damaged (and discarded) due to sitting out in bad weather (as is the case at outdoor construction sites).

Sixty-four, Z-Modular-built units (about ten of them trucked in per day) will create the 512-bed St. Clair facility.

The 106,000-square-foot GEM residence will feature lounge space on each floor, and a large, “sunlit” dining lounge.

The November 12th tour of the interior featured a completed suite, with four bedrooms (each with a pair of beds), two bathrooms and a large kitchen.

“The construction industry isn’t known for being very innovative,” noted David Petretta of Petretta Construction, the project’s general contractor. “This (Z-Modular’s revolutionary method) is very special.” The fact that St. Clair opted to use the new construction system is also a tribute to the school’s innovative mindset, Petretta added.

Barry Zekelman noted that the Z-Modular assembly method may have another benefit: it might attract more young Canadians into the construction trades because they’ll have the opportunity to work indoors in clean, warm, safe factories, rather than in the nation’s inclement weather.

His company’s system, Zekelman added, is a “step change in technology and design”, with a great capacity to quickly and affordably address housing shortages.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkins said the St. Clair project was an important one for the city. He said it provided an ideal opportunity for municipal planners and building inspectors to become familiar with the modular-assembly method. He also agreed that it is a construction method which other local developers should examine closely when they are setting out on their projects.