There is already a saying going around that your next real estate project won’t be built – it will be manufactured. Does it mean that the future of construction is going to be modular, Waste can be significantly reduced with an off-site process – as much as 50% of waste on traditional building sites could be prevented by a switch to off-site construction, with all the attendant financial and environmental benefits.
About modular construction
Modular construction is a form of off-site construction in which a building’s components, or modules, are constructed in a factory setting before being transported to site for assembly. People are most familiar with this type of construction in the use of bathroom pods, which is a common method of construction in many residential and hospitality projects.
In recent years, we have seen a rise in the use of volumetric construction, which involves the off-site construction of as much of a building as possible before being brought to site. Typically, a volumetric project would construct a complete room, with a bathroom inside that room, as well as part of the corridor and, perhaps, some external finishes.
What are the types of modular construction?
If you imagine a scale from traditional on-site construction to full-scale off-site construction, bathroom pod construction is much nearer the former, with most of the building still constructed on site in a traditional manner. Unitised façade systems and external envelopes are further towards the middle of the scale, and these have been produced partly off-site for decades. Further along are “flat-pack” solutions, involving the use of cross-laminated timber or concrete cross-wall construction. Typically, these structures would be constructed in panelised pieces off-site, then delivered flat on a vehicle to be assembled on site.
Finally, there is volumetric construction, where the majority of the building components are fabricated off-site in factory-controlled conditions before delivery to site. With volumetric, all the internal finishes arrive completed, which is very useful for developments in areas such as student housing or hospitality because there are no ‘wet trades’ coming onto site after delivery. This greatly reduces the number of people on site and the length of the programme, as well as providing programme certainty.
Benefits of off-site construction in general, and volumetric in particular
Off-site construction has a number of benefits in terms of programme, waste, cost and, of particular interest to us, quality. The building’s elements can be constructed a lot more quickly in controlled conditions – if necessary, the process can continue 24/7 and involve finished products continuously rolling off the factory floor. The process is not governed by some external factors present in traditional builds, such as adverse weather, challenging site logistics, the industry’s skills shortage, etc. The factory process will often involve people specialising in one specific area to a very high standard, leading to a better quality of product. The speed of the programme leads to earlier project completion.
Waste can be significantly reduced with an off-site process – as much as 50% of waste on traditional building sites could be prevented by a switch to off-site construction, with all the attendant financial and environmental benefits. Meanwhile, there are attractive economic advantages for the developer– in today’s market, it isn’t necessarily always cheaper to build off-site in the first instance, but the benefits to the client then accrue in a number of ways.