Prefabricated Modular Temples: How A New Method Could Accelerate Temple Construction

Helena Pieces
The Church appears to have big ideas about future temple construction.

In May 2021, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a press conference in Manti, Utah to announce a temple in Ephraim, Utah and amend renovation plans for the Manti Utah Temple. During the press conference, Bishop W. Christopher Waddell spoke with LDS Living and revealed some details about the temple planned for Helena, Montana, a temple that had its rendering released mere weeks after being announced:

“There are lots of things that are taking place with temple design that is reducing the time it takes to design temples [and] to build temples all over the world, for example, the Helena Montana Temple—it was just announced and it will be probably available for dedication in about 13 months and that’s because of some design features that are happening.”

What kind of “things” are taking place that are reducing the time it takes to design and build temples? Thirteen months is a blistering turnaround time for a temple construction and dedication, a process that typically takes about three years.

What does Bishop Waddell mean when he says “some design features that are happening?” Could this mean that parts of the temple are already progressing in their construction off site? How else could a temple be constructed so quickly even without a groundbreaking yet to be announced?

Period of Accelerated Temple Announcements

Throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members have sacrificed their means to be able to receive the blessings of temple ordinances. Church leaders have struggled to bring the blessings of the temple closer to the saints. Different Church leaders have engaged in temple expansion in their own ways.  

President Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th president of the Church, announced 78 temples during his tenure, including 42 smaller temples that were identical or nearly identical in floorplan and exterior appearance. In 2000, 34 temples were dedicated. The speed of construction was in part due to the ability to copy and paste basic plans into many areas around the world. Most of the temples were build on extra land next to existing meetinghouses and shared a parking lot, helping to expedite the approval process for construction.

Many of these smaller temples were announced and dedicated in the span of one to two years. As a result, the Church was able to more than double the number of operating temples in the years of 1997 to 2002.

Nearly two decades later, the average time it takes to construct temples on average has risen dramatically. It’s not uncommon for a few years to pass between a temple’s announcement and its groundbreaking, and then three or four years for construction. Many temples have experienced delays and have taken four to eight years from announcement to dedication, such as the Rome Italy Temple, which took nearly 11 years from announcement to dedication, and the Kyiv Ukraine Temple, which didn’t break ground until nine years after its announcement.

President Thomas S. Monson announced 45 temples during his nearly decade-long presidency. For a period of two years (2013-2015), he did not announce any new temples and he indicated that the Church was holding off announcing any new temples at least in part because it was concentrating its efforts on completing those temples that had been previously announced.

Moving to the present, from 2018 to May 2021, President Russell M. Nelson has announced 70 temples, causing a backlog of temples to grow. In a significant accomplishment in 2020, 21 temple groundbreakings were held, causing the number of temples in active construction to surpass the number of temples that were in the planning stages. But with 21 temples announced so far in 2021, the backlog is back. How might the church construct these temples in a way that is timely and efficient?

One solution may be to take advantage of new construction methods that are beginning to reshape the construction industry: prefabricated modular construction.

What is Prefabricated Modular Construction?

With prefabricated modular construction, sections of a structure are first designed in detail with software, then manufactured in a factory, and finally constructed and assembled on site. To be clear, “sections” doesn’t just mean paneling or other features that are brought in to be assembled on location, it means whole rooms or structures that are linked together to form the whole.

If you think this method can only be used for mobile homes or portable trailers, you may be interested to know the hotel chain, Marriott, has been working for a number of years to use modular methods in its hotel projects. In Manhattan, they are planning to construct a high-rise hotel using this method. Each room is fully built in a factory and even includes the interior finishes and furnishings. Then, a crane lifts the modules into place, resulting in a fast construction.

The advantages for this method are a faster construction time and higher quality of construction – faster because construction of the building doesn’t need to wait on foundation work to be completed and higher quality because the entire project is done under one roof by the same team and inspectors. Modular construction is often less expensive than traditional methods, as well.

One may be skeptical on whether the quality of these prefabricated structures would meet the traditional standard of construction for temples. Reddit users responded to a pre-conference rumor with skepticism. None of the commenters nor the purveyor of the rumor had knowledge of the current trends in prefabricated or modular construction that are progressing in the industry. Furthermore, the rumor added folklore by attaching the number 1,000 and calling these structures “endowment houses.”

The smaller temples of the Hinckley era did not employ modular construction. Instead, while most temples are built out of steel framing, these temples were made out of wood, like a house! The one-size-fits-all approach in this case led to temples in more humid climates suffering from issues with mold or even porous marble, and many of them have been quietly reconstructed using steel.

Prefabricating sections of a temple has the potential to solve the problem of keeping quality of construction high while still keeping costs down and having a quick construction period. It will be easier to have uniform standards in each structure. There are clues that the Church is working on using this approach to build temples that are already announced for the near future.

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Partners for Innovation

Among the Church’s more prominent temple construction contractors is Haskell, a design-build firm. These types of firms perform every aspect of a project, from architecture and engineering through to full construction and eventual handover as opposed to hiring subcontractors to handle different phases.

Haskell features the Barranquilla Colombia Temple in its portfolio. In it, Haskell explains that it uses a process called Building Information Modeling (BIM) to “mitigate design clashes prior to construction” and “greatly reduced the number of changes needed during construction, saving our client time and money.” It boasts that the temple was finished six months ahead of schedule and ten million dollars under budget. (If that was their savings, you can imagine what the total budget was.)

Obviously satisfied with Haskell’s previous performance, the Church partnered with the firm on the upcoming Quito Ecuador Temple. In the Philippines, Haskell is also working on all three temples currently under construction in UrdanetaAlabang, and Davao. Recently, there was a job posting for the Haskell office in Salt Lake City that required previous experience with temple design and temple construction administration that will work with the church as a client.

Job Posting for Project Architect - JCLDS Temple | Haskell

In addition to offering design-build services, Haskell in Salt Lake City also lists Design Manufacture Construct (DMC) as one of their delivery methods they offer. On another section of their website, they describe that DMC delivery “leverages manufacturing to cut costs, improve quality, and shorten time to market.” Furthermore, they say:

“Manufacturing streamlines the traditional approaches to engineering and construction with modular components and prefabricated assemblies. This allows offsite construction to occur much earlier in a project lifecycle and reduces overall timelines. Standardizing design and construction workflows create efficiency through every step of the project lifecycle.”

Specifically, Haskell has made a strategic investment in a company named BLOX. BLOX is a pioneer of the DMC construction method, working to streamline and scale the process to make it fast and profitable. It has traditionally focused on the healthcare industry as its core market, but BLOX had been planning to add six additional production lines by the end of 2020. In part, Haskell was interested in BLOX because they use steel to construct modules instead of traditional wood framing. Haskell has set apart a team to work full-time with BLOX to work on not only health care, but also Religious/Cultural Projects.

At the end of Haskell’s press release concerning its relationship with BLOX, Chief Operating Officer J.P. Saenz drops a pretty big clue about what the future holds for temple construction:

“Right now, the future looks promising for BLOX and Haskell, with the firms teaming up for a ‘large global church’ project to be delivered overseas.”

Can you think of a “large global church” that is working on multiple overseas projects and has a working relationship with Haskell?

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How Does It Work?

Potentially the first prefabricated temple—built in completed modules in factory, shipped to location, and assembled on site—appears to be the Helena Montana Temple. The temple was just announced in April of 2021. Sixteen days later, the church announced a location and released a rendering for this temple. The church will soon file documents with the city. The temple will likely be placed where a current meetinghouse stands and another meetinghouse will be built on the site.

It is not clear whether Bishop Waddell was indicating that the Helena temple would be finished 13 months from the date of his statement, or starting at the date of the groundbreaking. Either way, this is significantly less time than other temples that have been constructed using traditional methods.

Across its relatively short history, BLOX has focused on improving the construction process in the healthcare industry. Some examples below demonstrate how the same process can be applied to temple construction.

As stated earlier, work on modules can proceed simultaneously with foundation work on site. Modular components mean no subcontractors are required to take care of electrical, HVAC, or plumbing work; pipes and conduits are installed on the backside of a wall while work is done on the interior. Walls are assembled with features such as cabinets, sinks, toilets, and light fixtures already in place.You can view the photos of the manufacturing process on BLOX’s website.

After shipping the modules on site, a crane puts them in place, much like assembling a puzzle. Workers then proceed to bridge and seams and attach exterior panels.

One hospital project took only 14 weeks from delivery of the modules to the opening of the hospital, and that’s for a hospital, arguably a more complex—if less ornate—structure than a temple.

For temples, builders would likely employ precast concrete panels, a popular method that has won the church multiple awards and of which many temples currently under construction are using. The steeple would likely be assembled and lifted on top of the building in one piece (this is what recently occurred for the Richmond Virginia Temple).

Where Could Prefabricated Modular Construction be Used?

At close to 10,000 square feet in size, the Helena Montana Temple appears to be similar in floorplan as the Praia Cabo Verde Temple. Satellite images have captured the progress of that temple’s construction, revealing that the foundation was built in a way that may have been able to accommodate the placement of modules. The temple was not built using prefabricated modules, but the foundation may have been a proof of concept, which might also explain the comparatively brisk pace at which the Cabo Verde temple, along with its stalemates in Guam and Puerto Rico, has gone vertical. Interestingly, the foundation for the baptismal font is in the center of the temple. The meetinghouse being built next door also has a foundation that resembles that of how a modular construction would be.

To be clear, there are some specifics to the Helena situation outside of prefab construction that seem to be accelerating the project’s development, potentially giving us a temple in just over a year. Notably, it’s obvious that the temple has been in the planning stages long before its announcement and this wasn’t the Church doing what it sometimes does in places like Utah in issuing a temple announcement that completely blindsides the municipality that will host it. Nevertheless, DMC methods will greatly speed up the construction of this temple and others in the coming decade. 

The Praia/Helena temple model appears to also be in store for the Cobán Guatemala and Port Moresby Papua New Guinea temples. These temples feature just one endowment room and one sealing room. The temple in Cobán had a groundbreaking in November, but the temple in Port Moresby is yet to have a groundbreaking. It is evident that the DMC construction method will be used in many locations overseas. There are a number of other temples that have already been announced that could utilize this construction method.  For the temples in North America, the modules would be transported by trucks. For the ones overseas, the modules could be placed in cargo shipping containers and sent via ship to the country of origin.

Finding and working with contractors in nations outside the United Stakes can be difficult, especially with the standards the church expects to build temples. Controlling the quality of construction for as long as possible and minimizing the on-site construction time will aid in decreasing the total time of construction.

There are some candidate temples that have been recently been announced and may be suitable to have a prefabricated modular construction. These temples will have a fewer number of stakes are located in places that can be easily reached by truck or cargo ship:

  • Tarawa Kiribati
  • Port Vila Vanuatu
  • Beira Mozambique
  • Cape Town South Africa
  • Querétaro Mexico
  • Torreón Mexico
  • Casper Wyoming
  • Grand Junction Colorado
  • Farmington New Mexico
  • Burley Idaho
  • Eugene Oregon
  • Elko Nevada
  • Yorba Linda California

The three temples recently announced in Europe (Oslo, Brussels, and Vienna) will also serve a small number of stakes. One obstacle that may or may not be able to be worked with is differing standards around the world in emergency signage or electrical voltage and outlets in each region. There may be others, depending on the feasibility of transporting modules to interior cities in nations such as Colombia and Ghana. Many of the temples listed above may require more capacity than what a one endowment room/one sealing room temple can provide. It appears that if the Church proceeds with this method of construction, it will probably not replace the efforts to build larger temples in more traditional ways, especially as those buildings often involve at least three levels.

Many More Temples

In his April 2020 general conference talk, “Let This House Be Built unto My name” David A. Bednar said,

“House of the Lord are being constructed on the ‘isles of the sea’ and in countries and locations previously considered by many unlikely to warrant a temple.”

In addition, Elder Bednar quoted Brigham Young who said “To accomplish this work there will have to be not only one temple but thousands of them.” 

As the Church approaches having 200 dedicated temples in the coming years, it is evident that its leaders believe that temple construction is still in its infancy. As the growth in the number of meetinghouses has slowed in the past decade, the church may be moving its resources to expand temple building. This time, it may be at a pace that does not slow down, rather is continuously adding more volume delivered at a constant pace.

Many were stunned when President Nelson announced 20 temples in April, but if these new modular methods are employed at scale, the plans seem less bullish and much more feasible.

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