The growth potential for modular buildings

Construction Intelligence Center 3 Jan 2017 GLOBAL BUILDINGS

An ongoing and potentially revolutionary innovation within construction is the growth of modular buildings. Modular buildings are defined as prefabricated structures consisting of multiple sections termed modules. Modular construction differs from traditional forms of construction due to the fact that module sections are completed offsite before being transported to the construction site, where they are then positioned into place.

Also known as offsite or prefab construction, the Modular Building Institute (MDI) recently released data stating that modular construction currently accounts for 3% of all new commercial construction in North America, with that figure expected to increase to above 5% over the next five years. Within the Northern American market, commercial construction is currently the sector with the highest levels of modular construction, followed by industrial, healthcare and then educational. However, levels of modular construction in the residential housing sector remain low in comparison to other sectors.

Explanations for the increasing popularity of modular construction include the high number of benefits it can offer in comparison to traditional methods and how some of these benefits address a number of ongoing concerns within the construction industry in relation to existing business practices. For instance, a widely cited issue that continues to persist within construction is a lack growth in relation to productivity and modular construction is undoubtedly an innovation with the potential to vastly improve productivity levels across numerous construction sectors. Modular construction can improve productivity thanks to a reduction in the production timeline, with an average reduction of six months common in large scale projects in comparison to onsite construction.

Another ongoing concern within construction relates to issues of sustainability and the environmental impact of structures and modular construction represents an innovation with the potential to actively tackle key issues in relation to these concerns. For example, the factory controlled nature of modular construction often results in a reduction in waste within the construction process due to the ability of site managers to order the exact amount of materials they need. Furthermore the potential for shorter construction times equates to a reduction in overall energy usage across the construction cycle, with modular construction increasingly cited as a key innovation suitable for green building initiatives.

Modular construction can also offer improvements in worker safety due to the more controlled nature of factory construction as opposed to on site. Manufacturing building modules within a factory reduces the time spent performing high risk construction practices such as construction at extreme heights, while the use of prefabricated modules can also result in a more controlled, efficient and consequently safer onsite environment for workers.

Despite the widespread benefits modular construction can offer, there remains a number of obstacles preventing greater adoption with the need for a change in attitudes and culture a key barrier to greater implementation. Modular construction represents a stark contrast to traditional onsite construction methods and therefore requires an extensive transformation of existing processes and practices. A continued lack of training and education in relation to modular construction among both architects and contractors has held back its implementation while historical resistance to innovation and the slow pace of change within the construction industry has also restricted engagement.

Another key issue relates to the distance between the factory within which the modules are manufactured and the site on which the construction takes place, as transporting large parts across long distances can be both time consuming and costly. The difficultly in transporting modules can also impact on room sizes, as larger scale modules are more problematic for transportation. Nevertheless, as the benefits of modular construction and in particular it’s potential for reducing overall construction costs become increasingly apparent, attitudes towards engaging with this method are expected to shift. The increasing utilization of this innovation will also result in a greater investment in manufacturing and transportation technologies and methods, improving the ease of implementation.

Examples of modular construction being successfully implemented on large scale projects include the construction of 124 studio apartments in Knivsta, Sweden in the space of four months by Swedish company Junior Living. The apartment’s modules were fabricated in Junior Living’s factory offsite and then placed into a concrete frame which had been constructed onsite. The completion of the project within four months demonstrated the potential for the timeframe of the construction process to be dramatically reduced thanks to the use of modular construction.

Another notable modular construction project which received global attention due to its extremely fast assembly process was a 30 storey hotel in Hunan; China built by Chinese company the Broad Group in only 15 days. Entitled the T30 Broad Sustainable Building, 93% of its total components were prefabricated within the Broad Group factory and subsequently transported to the site for assembly. There are now over 30 Broad Group completed projects in China and their expansion into the North American market is anticipated, with the Chinese factory ready to supply the modules for projects outside of China.

In terms of modular buildings gaining momentum within the North American construction industry, in early 2015 the first modular building within Manhattan, New York was completed. Entitled The Stack NYC, the seven story apartment building was designed and co-developed by architecture firm Gluck+ and is described as the first multi-family modular building within New York City. The 56 modules that the building consists of were constructed within a factory in Pennsylvania, USA and subsequently transported to New York for assembly. Following the construction of the foundations and first floor supports, it took only 19 days for the modules to be positioned and completed. This project has once again highlighted the potential for modular construction to significantly reduce construction times and modular housing is expected to become increasingly popular in urban areas such as New York in the near future.

While modular buildings remain a relatively new and underutilized innovation within the construction industry, Timetric’s CIC expects it to become increasingly popular due to the potential for improvements in productivity and sustainability combined with reductions in project timescales. Despite being vastly different from conventional construction methods, construction firms that are willing to alter existing processes in order to implement its use are likely to experience significant advantages in competitively over competitors who attempt to hold on to more traditional methods over time. While modular construction may currently be in it’s infancy as a technique at present, current trends suggest it’s utilization is only set to increase as the technology develops and the benefits become progressively more apparent.

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