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Is the Future Modular Construction?

22 Sep 2017 at 12:02 PM

The concept of prefabrication is nothing new.

Examples of buildings being constructed in one place and relocated elsewhere go back centuries including settlement buildings being relocated to Cape Ann in 1624 and a hospital being moved from one place to another in 1801 in the West Indies.

In 1855 Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and oversaw the construction of a 16 unit, 1,000 patient prefabricated modular hospital for use in the Crimean War. Although only in use between 1856 and 1857 it reduced the death rate from 43% to 3.5%.

A little closer to home the world’s first ever prefabricated apartment buildings, invented by John Alexander Brodie, went up in Liverpool in 1906.

Although not a raging success in the UK, the approach was adopted extensively in parts of Europe.

Despite making some fairly meaningful contribution to world events, when it comes to prefabricated buildings, most of us just think of port-a-cabin classrooms and the misery of being in one for first period during the winter.

Times Change

In the 21st Century, almost 400 years since that hospital was erected and moved around the West Indies, modular building construction is making something of resurgence.

Modular homes have been cropping up in the UK more and more frequently, following a trend that’s been established in Western Europe for some time.

With the rise in house prices and a greater consideration for sustainable homes we can expect this trend to grow. It’s starting to creep into major developments too.

In 2015 Broad Sustainable Building erected a 57 storey tower comprised of 2,736 modules in just 19 days.

Although not the most striking building to grace a skyline there is no denying the endeavour or the potential, even when you consider the 4 months of fabrication prior to build.

The same company wants to build a 220 storey skyscraper in just 3 months.

If Broad Sustainable Building is successful the implications for the construction sector as a whole are huge.

Why Modular Construction Works

1. Speed of Build

The speed at which buildings go up would change the face – and the reputation – of the construction industry almost overnight.

Imagine if disruption to a major city like London could be reduced from years to just a few weeks? That kind of change would be transformative.

It would also simplify the design, survey and compliance elements behind the scenes because there would be no ambiguity over what will be built verses the plans.

2. Cost Efficiency

Because everything is made to exact measurements there aren’t the common hold ups and challenges associated with a conventional build.

Modular design is essentially the ultimate Lego kit so erecting any building is a series of binary questions:

Is it the right module? Yes or No

Is it in the right place? Yes or No

Does it fit? Yes or No

That makes building it relatively easy.

Providing the modular arrive in the correct order, the build proceed without the usual costly hold-ups, delays and errors.

3. Reduced Impact

Because the fabrication is offsite the build doesn’t cause the usual disruption in terms of noise, particulates and the endless ferrying of raw materials being worked or machined on site.

Excessive noise, dust and prolonged road closures could become a thing of the past.

It also makes the building process much safer.

4. Sustainability

Because the modules are manufactured to an exact design there isn’t the usual wastage or pollution that comes from a traditional building site.

It’s also possible to use recycled materials as the modules are constructed without the pressures and limitations of being on site.

5. Profitability

Because certain modules can be designed to the same specification, you as developers have the benefit from the economy of scale.

All bathroom modules, for example, could be identical and designed to just slot in to every apartment in a building.

It also dramatically reduces snags so the 2% of budget set aside to cover those costs becomes pure profit.

The Future

For all of its obvious advantages the uptake in the UK is still relatively low and broadly limited to residential builds.

There are currently only a handful of businesses in the UK that provide modular construction solutions and they are fighting against the preconceptions of the past. Specifically ugly concrete apartments and plywood classrooms.

However there is no denying the need and the markets that would benefit – especially schools and hospitals where budges are incredibly tight.

The reality however is, until there is a major breakthrough in modular construction – such as the skyscraper – we are years away from wide spread adoption.

There are also other considerations such as the infrastructure. Whilst buildings may suddenly start going up in a blink of an eye, sewage, power and water all take time to scale and be installed.

Solving one problem could all of a sudden create another, arguably, more serious one.

We also don’t know what it would do to the construction market from an employment standpoint.

Although this should never be a reason not to do something, there needs to be a period of adjustment to allow certain trades in the construction industry to retrain.

Build Energy delivers sustainability strategies, energy assessments, BREEAM certification, thermal modelling and a range of other quality assured services and testing to the construction industry.

If we can support you with your next project, contact us today.

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