By Jason Teets  – Operations Manager, Performance Contracting

Stepping outside the box from a rigid “stick-built-vs-modular” mindset not only opens up a world of possibilities for tailoring cleanrooms to a client’s unique needs and objectives, but it also makes the panorama of design and product choices a bit more complex. That’s where the experts come in. Professional guidance can help owners and architects simplify early decision-making by identifying multiple “hybrid” options and virtually trying them on for size. This sets the stage for project success, right from design development and construction all the way through to operation and maintenance.

While both traditional stick-built and modular construction have their respective advantages, PCI’s clients are increasingly opting for a hybrid approach that seamlessly integrates the best of both worlds. Starting the conversation from a broader perspective multiplies design and construction decisions – there are various paths to a successful outcome – increasing the importance of understanding the practical, operational implications of design and product choices.

Balancing Act

Every design decision has multiple consequences that impact and are affected by many variables. Understanding how these individual decisions can impact your long-term operations is critical. PCI believes the best-fit solutions arise from the intersection of your project/organizational expertise and our expertise in high-performance cleanroom projects – from their individual components (products) to overall project design, construction, and commissioning. We’re here to help you base your decisions on data, not dated assumptions or marketing-speak.

Streamlining your design-decision tree in the face of evolving technology and product/component diversification begins with understanding the feasibility of your basic project assumptions in the context of budgetary considerations, time value and variable, and location, both the physical project site and your position in the competitive marketplace/landscape. (For example, knowing that you are working with a 13-foot floor-to-floor height might immediately remove a walkable ceiling from consideration.) An expert, independent project partner like PCI ensures a more efficient, effective decision-making process informed by analyzing the cascading impacts of multiple, interdependent variables including:


  • Upfront vs long-term investments and commitments
  • Funding sources and constraints
  • Cost Analyses and Cost Estimating
  • Fixed costs (materials, products, systems) vs variable costs, of which labor can be the greatest, depending on the local or regional market for the project)
  • Value Engineering Opportunities (Real-time Pricing)
  • Tax implications for capital expenditures (varies state by state)

Time Value and Variables

  • Schedules/coordination of trades and deliveries
  • Product/material lead times
  • Downtime logistics
  • Production readiness


  • Labor cost
  • Proximity to skilled, high-tech workforce
  • Site-specific constraints or complications (e.g., limited plenum space)
  • Strategic adjacencies (e.g., for suppliers)
  • Competitive landscape and local/regional market expectations

Going Hybrid

When it comes to cleanroom design, the question of how to go hybrid has at least as many answers as there are clients and projects. Understanding the advantages of modular and stick-built construction and assessing these in the context of your unique requirements – cost, time, location, purpose – can narrow your best-fit options to a handful of design scenarios that variously integrate both types of elements, so that you can be confident in your ultimate design decisions.

Advantages of Modular

Cleanliness and control are the key pluses of integrating modular components. These products are manufactured of materials that offer no potential for fungus growth and in controlled settings that minimize contamination risks. Because they are built and inspected offsite, onsite construction requires fewer touches and inspections (e.g., wall panels include UL-rated raceways for electrical), decreasing the potential for contamination, while reducing onsite labor costs and coordination of trades, which consequently reduces liability and insurance costs. Products are FM Global approved. The uPVC finishes of modular components hold up to the most rigorous cleaning protocols and do not deteriorate over time the way epoxy paint over gypsum board does, making it easier and more cost-effective to maintain a pristine, controlled environment. Because uPVC finishes are more durable, chances are you will need to replace the technology in your cleanroom before your walls wear out. And if you need to expand or alter your space, you can add utilities or a pass-through cabinet with less disruption and dust, avoiding lengthy shutdowns for post-construction clean-up.

Case 1: Pivot Point

A major pharmaceutical firm has elected to replace an existing hybrid facility with new modular construction. The investment in higher front-end costs makes sense given their long-term time horizon. For the client, realizing the long-term operational benefits of modular uPVC finishes was a gamechanger: they had assumed it was normal (i.e., necessary) to constantly be doing maintenance on and replacing epoxy-coated gypsum walls. As they streamline and update all their facilities and protocols, pivoting to modular will be highly cost effective and yield substantial advantage.

Advantages of Stick-Built

The greatest benefits of traditional construction methods derive from flexibility and affordability. Stick-built construction offers increased flexibility for change orders, mechanical utility rough-ins and layouts, routing electrical through metal framing, and addressing unforeseen field conditions, such as existing (structural) columns and drains. Since not all industries and end purposes require the same ISO classifications, in scenarios where cleanliness is not as critical, stick-built cost-effectively delivers a CNC-grade environment. If you are conducting proof-of-concept studies and anticipate only one-to-two years before scaling up to a larger facility, stick built makes economic sense. Why invest in more expensive modular components when you are still evolving your processes and protocols? Likewise, if you need a cleanroom in one month, the faster lead time for stick-building materials makes it your go-to option. Stick-built construction has a lower front-end cost – 10% to 40% less than modular, depending on local labor rates and materials costs.

Case 2: Turn and Burn

Driven by the need to modify a CNC-grade (unclassified) cleanroom during a scheduled three-month shutdown, a leading pharmaceutical company in the Mid-Atlantic lacked the time necessary for pre-ordering modular components. In this case, traditional stick-built construction, utilizing a cleanroom grid with epoxy-coated walls, was the best-fit solution to ensure production readiness of a controlled but not classified environment.

Hybrid Solutions

Hybrid design and construction maximizes the opportunities for tailoring cleanroom projects of all scales to the mission, vision, and circumstances of owners and stakeholders. New-build projects are favoring this kit-of-parts approach that seamlessly combines the best of both worlds. The visual appeal and visible design consistency of modular, high-tech surfaces over stick-built framing is ideal for developers looking to contract space out for manufacturers who want a leading-edge look. As technology and products advance, hybrid approaches continue to evolve as well. Hybrid construction often meant drywall with modular liner panel over it; today, it is also commonly considered drywall with a 2-3mm thick cladding system – increased durability at a cost-effective price point.

Case 3: Advancing the Mission

A national research institute chose a hybrid approach – modular walkable ceiling with stick-built, epoxy-painted drywall partition below – to manage costs and maximize flexibility. Relatively low labor costs in the mid-Atlantic market made stick-built construction budget friendly.* The flexibility of metal framing (with a cavity for routing MEPs) was also advantageous for this design/build project, where the owner did not provide final equipment layouts to the General Contractor (GC) during the design phase.efficiency.

Case 4: Living Lab

Durability of finishes and pressurization requirements made hybrid design the best option for a vivarium. The project utilizes a wire-hung (non-walkable) ceiling with a combination of drywall and quarter-inch panel for greater scratch resistance.

Case 5: Multi-Variable Cost Analysis

A hybrid cleanroom design is delivering a cost-effective solution for a small pharmacy in New England. The project utilizes a walkable ceiling with 2-inch panels on existing stick-built walls. Comparing the costs of modular vs traditional, stick-built construction is complicated by the variability of local labor costs. In the Boston/Cambridge area, high hourly rates make the percentage difference between the two approaches moot, but in regions outside the Northeast, stick builds are less expensive because labor costs are lower (while materials costs are fixed).

Multiple Paths to High Performance

The best design approach is not an absolute but the one that works best for your situation, requirements, and goals. Plotting your own project path – the best-fit combination of features and products – is easier and most cost-effective when you have an experienced partner. The earlier you add a Performance Contracting expert to your team, the greater the value added for your cleanroom project.

As a top national specialty contractor, PCI understands the complex landscape and rigorous requirements of leading-edge R&D and manufacturing industries. Our comprehensive Design Assist Process aligns your project requirements and goals with PCI expertise to empower your decision-making for an efficient, effective process. If you already have a designer on board, adding PCI as a consultant can still add value to your Owner/Architect/Contractor team.

We bring deep familiarity with all available products but are not tied to any one manufacturer or product line, and we can leverage our longstanding working relationships with providers and suppliers to benefit your project.

A hybrid approach maximizes opportunities for customizing cleanroom design but also complicates the landscape of design and product choices. Information overload is real, and no one can be an expert in everything. Independent expertise can help you streamline your project to ensure success from design development and construction through long-term operation.

Having the right people asking the right questions when every day counts is a critical investment in successful outcomes.