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Modular Construction on the Rise - Forum BuildIng Design Experts

Modular Construction on the Rise

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2 years ago
The Urban Village Project, 2019, EFFEKT Architects and SPACE10, in collaboration with IKEA

The Prefabricated modular construction industry is projected to be worth over $200 billion dollars by 2030. This will cause a seismic shift in the industry not only for contractors and fabricators but also for designers. How do we as contributors to the built environment adapt to this paradigm shift?

For the uninitiated, modular building involves pre-fabricating structural, mechanical, electrical, and even architectural finishes in a factory environment and then shipping these modules or building blocks to site. Site-work thereby becomes more a process of assembly of factory-created elements and provides a much more fast-track solution to building construction compared to traditional methods. This is already common for certain building components such as unitized façade systems. But despite this, and the obvious inefficiency in creating bespoke structures over and over, modular building has yet to gain a strong foothold in the industry. I’d like to outline why modular construction could well become more widespread and why the industry data points towards. To start, the first simple question is -why the change?

Modular building is not a new concept. It became en vogue after World war II as a rapid solution to housing provision was necessary. However, primarily because of its aesthetic deficiencies this method of construction became somewhat unpopular. In some ways It provided an efficient and effective solution …but an ugly one. The need for rapid housing provision still remains and designers have found a way to do so in a more aesthetically pleasing way using modular construction.

Industrialized construction/modular building means different things to different people. However the virtues that its advocates extol are the same. Lets dig into what some of those are.

Building Sustainability

Sustainability is one key advantage that modular holds over traditional construction. It is estimated that approximately 480 million tonnes of Construction and Demolition (C&D) waste is generated in the US alone annually. While approximately 70% is recycled there is still over 140 million tons that end up in landfill.

The factory driven process allows for much less waste during the manufacture and assembly process as inventory can be tightly controlled and managed for multiple projects at once. A 2009 report from the EPA estimated that residential construction waste can be as high as 4.39lb/ft2. The EPA estimates that approximately 90% of the waste comes from demolition. Modular buildings can actually be reused which reduces this portion significantly. There is no doubt that when compared to traditional methods, modular building is sustainable building.

Many countries throughout the world have committed to net-zero C02 emissions by 2050. Between building materials, construction and operations buildings contribute approx. 40% of all greenhouse gases to the environment annually. Sustainability is shaping the industry and industrialization is part of the solution.

Efficiency and Speed

Labour productivity is enhanced dramatically in an industrialized environment and quality also increases significantly. In a factory environment assembly and manufacturing processes are mechanized and facilitate the production of thousands of operations in a fast and efficient manner with a push of a button.

The repetitiveness of this process and the quality control measures possible in a factory driven environment also help to ensure a quality product is always delivered in a timely manner. This is something that traditional construction has struggled with for as long as the industry has been in existence.

Right now the construction is lagging far behind many others industries in terms of transitioning to and incorporating automation. As outlined in our previous articles productivity in the industry in general is of huge concern. Construction methods have continued to employ outdated and inefficient processes of the past with little innovation in the actual construction processes. Many aspects of the supply chain and project delivery that are just not efficient – Industrialized construction is and it holds great potential to enhance productivity.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been extraordinary advances in terms of the use of computational operations used in design. I for one, am very glad that I do not have to carry out non-linear P-delta analysis by hand….or produce drawings by hand for that matter. The explosion of BIM technology and the advent of AR/VR are other examples of advances that have and will continue to help advance design.

However the current model of creating designs on a bespoke basis and then piecing them together using dated construction methods is long past its expiration date.

Safety and Productivity

A controlled factory driven process offers a much safer way to build than traditional builds. On site fatalities and injuries is for many in the industry one of the major concerns and top priorities in terms of project delivery. It is obvious to see why industrialized construction offers many benefits to this end.
The industry lags way behind other sectors and there are many aspects of the supply chain and project delivery that are just not efficient. Modular building is and it holds great potential to enhance productivity.

Limitations

In spite of the benefits mentioned above, there are many reasons why modular building hasn’t worked up to now.

Many detractors would say modular building imposes significant limitations on architecture. That is, creating modular buildings based on multiple repetitive building blocks, precludes wide expansive spaces and even significant change of environment within the architectural space. To expand on this, and maybe clarify my point, Mies Van der Rohe’s brick house, among many other of his designs, which re-imagined interior architecture as an open living plan with misaligned walls and interconnecting spaces would not be possible with a modular build, at least not in way that easily.

These detractors would say rooms are generally smaller and spaces repetitive. Designs are inherently less aligned with the context of where there are placed. It’s a one-type-fits-all solution to an extent..but then is that a good solution?

The thought of vast blocks of repetitive modular buildings scattered throughout cities and towns is a frightening prospect. But there is a solution which helps to lessen this aesthetic drawback and in my eyes is the only path forward for modular building at least in the short term. To me large scale modular building can be successful if it is a hybrid of modular and traditional build.

A high-rise tower will still need a central concrete core built using traditional methods. Amenity and public spaces in hotel buildings will still need to use traditional approaches to create wide open spaces to break the rigid repetitive rhythm. Citizen M Hotel in New York is a good example of this.

Modular Construction Example
CitizenM Hotel in New York mixes traditional building with modular building. (Image courtesy of standard.co.uk)

What the Future Holds

Modular construction is gaining momentum as designers are gradually coming around to the benefits of industrialization. Owners are understanding that it can allow for aesthetically pleasing buildings and also facilitate productivity, speed, safety and sustainability. Several high-profile projects have also been delivered efficiently and to a standard that at least meets and in a sustainability/scheduling sense exceeds traditional construction methods. For some of the more complex structures out there industrialized methods are the only way to ensure various components can be built to tolerance.

As designers we need to tackle what this will mean in terms of code modifications, design approaches, material use and project delivery generally. I for one am looking forward to the Space-X or Tesla of the modular construction world (with less moving parts..or maybe not!) and feel as though something like this is just around the corner.

I’m not sure if we are ready to tackle this as designers just yet and welcome all your thoughts on how to navigate this new space. Go to our forum and discuss how do we as designers and contractors in the industry up-skill and develop to ride the new wave of modular building ahead.

Thanks for reading and please comment!

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