A couple of trends in construction are affecting some industries, including medical and hospitality: prefabrication manufacturing and retrofitting buildings.

Though both have been around for a while, construction professionals in the region said they are seeing them trend upward.

Old buildings for new purposes

Construction Engineers recently finished a project for Essentia Health that involved converting an old retail building into a state-of-the-art ambulatory care clinic.

The 23,000-square-foot building in Park Rapids, Minn., now includes 18 exam rooms, space for physical and occupational therapy, a speech therapy department, and a cutting-edge radiology department, among a number of other features.

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Essentia moved into the space when Construction Engineers, headquartered in Grand Forks, N.D., was just finishing some final touches with the building in early September.

Mike Dunn, the construction company’s business development manager, said this is not the first time the company has refitted a building for a new occupant. Dunn said vacant retail stores are prime real estate to convert to health clinics, in part because of the open spaces of vacant buildings.

“We did a job very similar for Altru in Grand Forks where we repurposed a Scheels store, there on Columbia Road, into its PT and Performance Center,” he said. “These health care providers want to utilize these locations and save a little bit of money by remodeling into those buildings.”

Dunn said there are some varying challenges repurposing old buildings, but the benefits surpass the hiccups. A couple of benefits is that the main structure is already built, and retrofitting an existing building instead of building a new one may save the new owners money.

“I think there are definitely challenges with repurposing, but it can also help owners open faster because they’re not undertaking a totally new construction project,” he said. “I think that's why some of the owners like doing this.” As an example, the Park Rapids project “was a nice open floor plan to begin with … and so it just involved adapting their layout for the flow of patient care and traffic patterns. It was totally transformed.”

While businesses other than medical might find their own purpose for repurposing an existing building, it seems to especially be trending with healthcare providers.

“They typically are in good locations and so the health care folks are seeing there's opportunity to put some of their specialty needs clinics in more retail locations and repurpose those buildings,” Dunn said. “We've seen a number of them do that. We see it all around the area, actually.”

Dunn said he is unsure if the coronavirus pandemic has quickened the trend, because many remodeling projects started before the pandemic was declared. And from what he’s seen, it is a trend not only locally but nationally.

“A lot of these jobs have been in the works for three years or so,” he said. “I think it's more of a trend nationally with available buildings and, again, trying to fill up space instead of always doing new construction on the outskirts of town, that kind of thing.”

Prefab and modular manufacturing

Modular construction and prefabricated buildings also are becoming more popular among medical facilities and the hospitality industry.

Something that makes these options appealing, according to Tim Torpey, general manager of B&T Manufacturing in Black Hawk, S.D., is that they are a cost-effective option, especially during economically challenging times.

“There's no shortage of us having opportunities for projects,” Torpey said. “We continue to grow, and that includes our employees over the next couple of years.”

The company is growing so remarkably, in fact, that it plans to open a new 60,000-square-foot facility this fall in Rapid City.

The Prefabrication and Modular Construction 2020 SmartMarket Report, published by Dodg Data & Analytics, echoed similar sentiments, explaining that prefabrication and modular construction are experiencing significant growth as the construction industry seeks to improve safety, productivity, project quality and cost-cutting measures.

“Clearly the future is bright for continued growth in use of both prefabrication and modular construction” for a number of reasons, according to the report. One of those reasons, Torpey said, has to do with the number of diminishing trade professionals.

“Construction folks will tell you that with the shortage of qualified personnel – when you think about the carpenters and plumbers – there are not a lot of folks going into those trades these days,” he said. “So they're looking for solutions to still get their job done, and this provides possibly more job opportunities in this market where people are not going into those other fields as much. This helps to kind of balance that out.”

A view of a finished, factory-built bathroom by Black Hawk, S.D.-based B&T Manufacturing.
A view of a finished, factory-built bathroom by Black Hawk, S.D.-based B&T Manufacturing. Image: Courtesy of B&T Manufacturing

B&T specializes in prefabricated and modular bathrooms for hospitals, hotels and restaurants, among other industries. The bathrooms are manufactured at B&T’s facility and then delivered to the project site for installation.

“They're actually complete turnkey bathrooms with tile, mirrors, shower doors, vanities,” Torpey said. “They just slide into the envelope of the building.” Once on site, “we do about two hours worth of connections and you have a fully functioning bathroom.”

Of course, that’s a simplistic explanation. Torpey said there is a lot of pre-planning, measurements, and coordination that happen along the way and long before the bathroom is installed. It never fails him when the job is complete; he is always excited to see a project come together like a finished puzzle.

B&T also is doing something else with bathrooms, something Torpey said he believes will be a game changer on the job site. Say goodbye to portable potties on the construction scene, he said. Say hello to the wellness hub.

The Wellness Hub for Hygiene & Health fits into a variety of environments to connect to sanitation, fresh water, and electrical utilities. It includes natural lighting and porcelain fixtures. Basically, Torpey said, it is a smart bathroom that scans the faces of users to take their temperature, provides a hand-sanitizing basin, and once the occupant leaves the hub it locks the door and automatically sanitizes the room for the next visitor. The hub is on wheels so it can easily be moved to new locations of a job site.

The hub is just another way that Torpey said B&T is following trends and making new ones. In the larger picture, he said some general contractors still have a tough time with prefabricated and modular projects, but he understands why that may be the case.

“The general contractors out here, the hotel builders and such, they've been doing their stuff for years and years, the way they've always done it,” he said.

But he believes prefab and modular will continue to take hold and grow, and those who have come on board with it realize the benefits.

“They see the potential, but it is still that leap of faith,” he said. “Basically what we’re doing, we're just bringing construction into a manufacturing process.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com