What is Modular Construction and How Will it Change How We Build?

By Nick Mirisis on February 27, 2021
Tags: Construction

According to the Modular Building Institute (the MBI), modular construction is “a process in which a building is constructed off-site, under controlled plant conditions, using the same materials and designing to the same codes and standards as conventionally built facilities – but in about half the time. Buildings are produced in modules that, when put together on-site, reflect the identical design intent and specifications of the most sophisticated site-built facility – without compromise.” Essentially, modular construction is a form of prefabricated construction where much of the construction process takes place away from the building site. For modular construction projects, both big and small, single-story or multi-story, prefabricated construction methods can provide unique benefits over traditional construction.    

Benefits of Modular Construction

Modular construction offers many key benefits over traditional construction modalities ranging from sustainability, improved and consistent quality with off-site construction taking place in a controlled environment, reduced construction time, less waste of building materials, a more cost-effective building process, and more.

  1. More Sustainable Building Practices: With modular construction, a reduction in site work means that most of the work occurs at a fabricator. With off-site modular building practices, eco-friendly and recycled materials can be used at scale using fewer workers, which reduces trips to job sites. As a result of the specialized and controlled environment for building prefab structures, a reduction in waste and an improvement in energy efficiency occur.
  2. Improved Quality: Modular construction produces buildings that are high quality and durable. Materials used in modular structures and modular units are stored in a controlled environment and more quickly subjected to inspection and quality control processes. With traditional construction, materials are often kept at the job site and exposed to rain, sun, snow, humidity, poor air quality, and temperature changes, which can negatively impact the building’s materials and integrity. Qualified and knowledgeable quality control professionals can quickly inspect the centralized and internally stored materials for modular construction before being used – a reality that is far less practical on a job site. Modular construction meets building codes such as the International Building Code (IBC) or National Building Code (NBC). General contractors ensure that the installation of the building meets those requirements.
  3. Reduced Build Times: Total building time for modular construction is significantly reduced compared to traditional construction – this includes both time on a job site and preparation time. Before the design of a building, components of modular construction are often already manufactured. When a building is requisitioned or commissioned, readily available building components can be shipped out or manufactured on demand. The entire building is then shipped directly to a construction site in various pieces, and assembly begins. The reduction of time on the job site also reduces disruption to existing buildings and workflows on site. The only work on a job site that occurs before installing a building is site work and foundation work. Following site preparation, installing the modular components and restoration of the area typically takes between one and three months in total. Furthermore, there are fewer delays due to unpredictable circumstances such as inclement weather and unreliable contractors.
  4. Cost-Effective Process: Modular construction makes construction processes less expensive and makes costs far more predictable. Prefabricating buildings include streamlined operations, scaled cost efficiencies, a centralized and reduced labor force, and less time dedicated to a general contractor overseeing multiple subcontractors. A study conducted on modular and prefabricated construction found that 65% of companies reported that projected budgets decreased, with 41% of companies noting a budget reduction of 6% or more. (McGraw-Hill Smart Market Report: Prefabrication and Modularization: Increasing Productivity in the Construction Industry)
  5. Customizable Building Design: Contrary to popular belief, modular construction does leave many options available for customization. Modular buildings are highly usable, adaptable, and flexible, allowing for a unique build without compromising quality and cost-effectiveness. Custom prefabricated buildings include unique layouts, exterior and interior finishes, and other individual building design elements. Clients, builders, and designers can collaborate with modular building companies to ensure that construction projects meet specific looks and needs.
  6. Dynamic and Flexible Options: Not only are modular structures customizable, but they can be either relocatable or as permanent modular construction as well. Traditional construction is typically permanent in nature. While buildings can are movable, the required upfront costs and effort required to do so are enormous. With modular construction designed to be relocatable, these buildings can be more easily broken down into component pieces then shipped to a new construction site and assembled with the only requirements being a new foundation and pad site to be available. For businesses with the need to expand or relocate, this type of building construction can be invaluable.  

Modular Building Will Change How We Build

Modular building is not new – companies have been commercializing prefabricated construction for decades – however, improvements and changes in modular building will change how a wide range of construction projects are approached and executed. In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven demand for prefabricated construction. A need for rapidly deployed testing centers, for schools and businesses to increase space for social distancing, and for field hospitals on short-notice all were addressed and made possible with modular construction. At the beginning of the pandemic, two hospitals were built with modular construction in less than two weeks to provide 2,600 beds to patients! 

While the pandemic may have served to prove the efficiency and benefits of modular construction, this type of construction has far more reaching and impactful benefits. Modular buildings have long been a staple on school campuses where pop-up classrooms have met an increasing demand for education rapidly. However, they are now becoming more familiar with developers for multifamily housing, healthcare/medical buildings, data centers, restaurants, offices, and more. With the recognition that construction times can increase by as much as 50% and cost savings of up to 20% are possible, the modular construction industry should experience incredible growth in the coming years (McKinsey & Company: Modular construction: From Projects to Products). Ultimately, modular construction aims to create shorter construction times, more efficient building processes, and make construction projects more cost-effective.