Smart Building Solutions: Revival of Modular Construction
While prefabrication has been used in construction for a few hundred years, dramatic technological improvements have recently brought on the revival of prefab, or modular construction as a more cost effective, energy efficient and productive method of construction. In recent years the construction industry has been actively modernizing its practices as state and federal laws are becoming more stringent on environmental standards in construction, and commercial and residential clients have been demanding quality construction within an efficient time frame that can also save them money. Modular construction has been able to meet all of these needs and in fact has been exceeding client expectations in terms of financial savings and productivity.
It is becoming more apparent and widely publicized that traditional methods of on-site construction have a number of flaws. Since it is a fragmented process by nature, it leads to longer time frames to complete a project, delays, lower quality control, increased materials and energy waste and more overall required labor. All of these factors translate into higher spending budgets with lower rates of satisfaction with finished jobs.
Modular construction dates back to when the English moved to Australia, and shipped entire buildings across the globe, and is an entirely different concept and process of construction. The primary difference is that 90% of construction takes place offsite, at a factory. The entire assembly of the components of the building including roofing, electricity and plumbing takes place indoors and then the finished module is transported to the building’s final’s location. Since modular construction is a repetitive, streamlined process, the industry has been able to achieve unparalleled amount of quality control each step of the way. This difference translates into market increases in productivity, energy and materials efficiency, 30-50% faster rates of completion and significant financial savings. As William Cianci, executive director of the Construction Institute at the University of Hartford, points out with regard to modular construction, “Everything is really based on controlling conditions”.
During the construction phase in the factory, streamlining and controlling the process means that materials and production are not subject to weather conditions, it is easier to supervise labor and control incidents of theft, there is faster access to tools, and fewer material deliveries to a construction site. While this saves both time and money, big savings result from the fact that unlike in traditional construction, site preparation and building construction take place simultaneously, rather than as two separate phases of the process.
The savings are particularly significant for clients such as hospitals, hotels and schools, since their buildings have a lot of repetitive rooms (i.e. classrooms, labs, hotel rooms, patient facilities, etc) and can be efficiently prefabricated in an an assembly-line fashion. For example, the Miami Valley Hospital in Ohio saved 2 % off its $152 million construction costs by prefabricating the patient rooms and overhead utility racks. Projects such as this one and resulting impressive savings have been drawing a lot of attention and interest from clients in different industries who are looking to build quality buildings on a budget. Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Buildings Institute, based in Virginia remarked on this new trend, stating: “The downturn of the construction economy has made people look to be more efficient, more productive”.
The undeniable environmental benefits of modular construction has also been one of the leading reasons for many clients choosing to embrace it. Traditional on site construction causes a lot of pollution, wastes materials that end up in landfills and wastes a lot of energy and other resources in the process. Modular construction has made a commitment to making its production process more environmentally friendly and employs many cutting edge green building and design practices. The streamlined automated nature of the process saves a lot of energy and reduces materials waste. Moreover, many building materials in modular construction are made from recycled materials, and can also be recycled at the end of their service life. The industry has also been pushing the envelope on the traditionally accepted concept that a building has an end to its service life. In modular construction, modules are specifically designed to be reused and repurposed, greatly extending their service life and thereby reducing waste and pollution associated with it.
Despite the many advantages, many construction companies are still slow to embrace modular construction. Construction industry as a whole has actually been lagging behind in terms of adapting progressive technologies and improving its best practices and efficiency. In fact, according to the Modular Building Institute, the overall productivity in the construction industry declined from 1995 to 2001, while nearly every other industry has embraced technological advancements. One of the reasons for this resistance to modular construction has been the fact that most contractors, subcontractors and trades with various specialties are trained in the ways things in construction have been traditionally done. Another hurdle that needs to be overcome is unions and laborers, who tend to oppose prefabrication because it reduces the amount of labor needed as most of the work is performed offsite and offers lower wages to workers.
States themselves have been slow to embrace modular construction, but successful case studies across the country, such as Miami Valley Hospital in Ohio, are giving many state agencies food for thought. In particular, prefabrication has been picking up interest in the West and the Midwest, and such states as Connecticut are slowly beginning to consider the potential benefits of modular construction. For example, as a step toward more efficient construction, the state of Connecticut, where modular construction is practically non-existent, has been moving some projects away from the low-bidder concept, and focusing more on design-build partnerships, instead. Additionally, construction projects have begun to be laid out virtually on a computer before work onsite begins. While change is slow, the fast speed of evolving technologies in modular construction, and many successful money saving prefab projects springing up across the US, there is no doubt that both states and companies within the construction industry itself will come to realize the efficiencies to be gained from modular construction.