Photo Credit: The Village of Obetz
Falcon Structures continues to grow its portfolio of projects.
By Jim Harris
The closure of the Columbus Motor Speedway in 2016 left its host, the village of Obetz, Ohio, with both a challenge and an opportunity. The village wanted to redevelop the property with a structure that would be large enough to host the home games of the Ohio Machine, a Major League Lacrosse team; as well as major events such as the popular Obetz Zucchini Festival.
With the Ohio Machine’s first game scheduled in less than a year, the village needed a very large structure built in a short period of time. To solve this problem, the village looked to Falcon Structures.
In summer 2017, Falcon Structures completed the new $15 million stadium, Fortress Obetz. Completing a structure akin to the 6,500-seat, 71,112-square-foot Fortress would normally take two years. However, Falcon Structures needed only six months to pull off the feat.
Composed of 122 shipping containers, Fortress Obetz is the largest structure of its kind built in the United States. Falcon Structures modified the containers in its manufacturing facility in Manor, Texas, then shipped them to Ohio, where a crew from the company and local contractors assembled the Fortress.
“This is a spectacular project and a forerunner for the container-based structures industry,” CEO Stephen Shang says.
The structure includes second-level patio decks as well as bathroom and concession areas. The Fortress’ towers are made from upright 40’ containers, while the rest of the structure consists of horizontal containers stacked next to and on top of each other.
Since its completion, Fortress Obetz has earned the company accolades including an award for best permanent assembly of a modular structure at the 35th annual World of Modular Conference, hosted by the Modular Building Institute in late March.
Fortress Obetz was one of two Falcon Structures projects recognized during the conference. The company also earned an award for its work on an emergency response training structure in Nevada.
Falcon Structures’ recent awards reflect the company’s dedication to the modular approach. “We’re building container-based structures in half the time stick-built buildings call for,” Shang says. “Because we have a robust, time-tested manufacturing system in place, we’re side-stepping the usual construction pitfalls. Customers get their structures on time and on budget.”
Located just east of Austin, Texas, the company’s factory serves customers across the United States. The factory is segmented into four areas, or “domes,” where staff perform welding, carpentry, electrical, finish-out and painting functions. Rigorous quality checks are performed at each stage of the process as a container moves through the domes. The five-acre facility can produce four repurposed shipping containers a day, the company notes.
Falcon Structures’ quality process is the result of a quality management system it invested in eight years ago. “Quality is a continuous journey,” Shang says. “Each improvement to our system, no matter how small, is a benefit to the customer. In the end, it all adds up to a superior product and experience.”
Shang emphasizes that this is a big difference between choosing a manufacturer, like Falcon Structures, to modify containers as opposed to hiring a contractor to do welding on the construction site.
“We’re working with shipping containers every day. Not only can we make the modifications faster and higher quality, but we’re in a position to help with the design process for container-based buildings,” Shang says, “We know the strengths and limitations of this building material, and we’ll steer our customers to something that we know is going to be safe and implementable.”
‘Laying it On’
Falcon Structures has evolved significantly since Shang and EVP of Products Brian Dieringer founded it in 2003 as a portable storage rental provider.
In 2008, the Great Recession led the company to pivot its operations. “Before that, the construction industry accounted for about two-thirds of our rental business. When the recession hit and the industry crashed, we were left with way too many unrented containers on our lot,” Shang says. “It was a stressful time for the business, but we told our employees that we were not going to do layoffs – we were going to instead ‘lay it on,’ and find new uses for our containers.”
Falcon Structures’ “lay it on” philosophy led it to the U.S. Department of Defense, which at the time was the only entity regularly spending money on projects. In 2009, an Armed Forces training officer asked a Falcon Structures salesperson if the company could provide a training village used to prepare troops for overseas deployment. Shortly after Shang met with the officer, the company completed the project by fabricating 39 modified containers in Manor and shipping them to San Antonio.
Between 2009 and 2013, Falcon Structures led the market in building Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) training facilities that included simulated schools, mosques and marketplaces. One of the company’s largest projects of this kind was a “city” consisting of 700 containers. “We never said ‘die’ and instead vigorously explored what else we could do with these [containers], and that opened our eyes to modular construction,” Shang says of the company’s approach during the recession.
Since 2014, the company has expanded beyond the military sector to offer prefabricated container-based structures to industrial, commercial and other clients. Falcon Structures’ industrial clients include oil and gas companies that have used its containers as equipment enclosures, field offices and as living quarters. The company is also gaining ground in the wastewater treatment industry.
In 2015, the company built 320 containers to be used as enclosures for monitoring equipment along the Dakota Access Pipeline. Each station is placed roughly every five miles along the pipeline. “We saved our customer 50 percent of their deployment time,” Shang says. “Offsite construction of these stations made more sense than building a concrete shed every five miles in the middle of nowhere.”
As Falcon Structures has acquired customers from a diverse array of industries, it’s been amazed by how many different uses there are for modular container structures. Water treatment companies use Falcon’s container structures as mobile water treatment plants. A professional endurance racing team uses one of Falcon Structures’ modified containers as a mobile garage for its cars. An oil company uses a container-based bathroom. The list goes on.
Shang continues to seek new markets for Falcon Structures. “The biggest challenge we have right now is market awareness,” he says. “One of my key roles here is that of an evangelist, going out and casting the vision for container-based structures.”
“We are educating the market that this is a real possibility, and it can be done,” Shang adds. “I think once people know about it, it will take off.”
Affordable housing is one area where Shang sees likely growth for the company. The speed at which Falcon Structures’ containers can be deployed, as well as their cost, make them a viable option in major cities with large homeless populations. “We’re working with developers and nonprofit organizations in large urban areas on how to get affordable housing to the market quickly by building it through offsite construction,” he says.
Shang’s role as evangelist for Falcon Structures also includes driving greater acceptance for modified shipping containers as a code-compliant building material. Speaking at the World of Modular conference, he noted how market demand for containers is pushing the International Code Council (ICC) to revisit existing building codes and create new codes for containers.
“One of the biggest barriers container-based structures face is the fact that the ICC doesn’t address them,” he says, noting that structures are either considered non-compliant with code or can only become compliant following a rigorous review and inspection process.
“We are working with the ICC to have different pathways for containers to be accepted by code officials,” Shang adds. “We are not there yet, but we are on the down side of the slope.”
Shang believes that while navigating code has presented hurtles for the industry, it will be beneficial in the long run. Finally having clear lines around safe and unsafe container use will prevent accidents that could threaten the entire industry.
“We know the limits of container modifications at Falcon because we’ve consulted structural engineers. For example, containers are extremely strong, but you can’t cut out the entire side of a container without adding reinforcement. Previously local coding officials were in uncharted waters trying to determine which modifications are structurally sound. Sensible code will create a clear pathway to safe structures,” says Shang.
Another World of Modular presentation, given by Stefan Fuchs, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, held significance for Falcon Structures. Fuchs spoke about how construction companies can be more productive. The global management-consulting firm studied productivity in 10 industries ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to retail. The institute concluded that while most industries have grown their productivity significantly during the past 40 years, construction has grown only by 6 percent, leaving an enormous opening for industry disruption.
Fuchs offered modular construction as a notable solution during his presentation. “It was exciting to see smart people come to the same conclusions that we reached through trial and error,” Shang says.
As modular construction gains momentum, the hospitality industry is also taking notice. At the conference, Mariott Hotels announced that they planned to increase modular construction efforts. Shang anticipates other businesses will soon follow suit.
“My vision for 10 to 15 years from now is that when someone begins a project, they look at modular construction as an obvious option. At the end of the day, modular construction just makes sense,” he says.
Falcon Structures CEO Stephen Shang also brings his company’s values to the community. Serving on the boards of several non-profit organizations, including The Rotary Club, and The Thinkery, The University of Texas Electrical & Computer Engineering Department and Entrepreneur’s Organization, Shang cultivates projects that will democratize opportunity for motivated people. He also lends expertise and mentorship to budding entrepreneurs by speaking at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business and Camp Enterprise. While the entrepreneurial path has been challenging, it has given Shang’s life and identity profound meaning. He wants anyone who is willing to become an entrepreneur to have the opportunity, awareness and education to do so.
Earlier this year, the Modular Building Institute named CEO Stephen Shang as co-winner of its Volunteer of the Year award. “We believe in serving others,” he says. “It’s a part of our culture; there’s so much more joy in giving rather than taking.”