On a typical Earth Day, the construction industry is usually called out equally for its role as both a sustainability leader and as a leading offender when it comes to the size of its carbon footprint.
This year, however, modular construction—which is both green and more efficient—can be recognized for its role in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. When hospitals rushed to increase capacity and schools and colleges required virus testing centers in 2020, the obvious choice for many was modular construction. Hospitals and schools were then able to quickly add life-saving equipment to heal the sick and test those in need in a matter of days.
As the demand for building hotels and office space dwindled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, modular construction was ready to meet the need for additional medical buildings, affordable housing, and data centers. Modular—an offsite method—was well-positioned for its big moment as organizations rushed to address health concerns and get back up and running safely.
Deep Dive into Modular Construction
Greener, faster, and smarter, modular construction falls under the broad idea of prefab construction. This is where whole structures are built in three-dimensional boxes or in the form of modules and transported to the jobsite. These can be temporary structures like testing centers or permanent ones like banks, schools, and hospitals.
With modular, the factory is where much of the action happens as workers produce pieces—like panels and walls or full units like kitchens and bathrooms—and then have them delivered to the jobsite. There, they are assembled and installed on location like Lego pieces.
While the structures are being fabricated in a modular construction facility, the project jobsite can be prepped for the structure installation. Instead of a traditional jobsite where these projects happen one after the other, work can be done simultaneously reducing project lead times by up to 50%. Not to mention, modular eliminates the typical weather delays if 60% to 90% of the construction is completed inside a building.
Bringing Speed and Efficiency to Construction
Offsite—which includes prefabricated and modular—has an impressive potential to lower costs and compress project schedules by 30% to 50%. Many like to tout modular benefits as being both better for the environment and more efficient, such as:
- Creates less waste: Since many buildings are constructed simultaneously in one factory, excess materials from one project can easily be recycled and used on another. This also helps control inventory and protect building materials.
- Lowers emissions: By reducing total deliveries and time spent on-site, modular construction decreases carbon emissions. Air quality is improved because modular structures are completed in a factory-controlled setting of dry materials.
- Optimize with machine learning: Building processes in the factory are optimized over time with software enhancements to reduce waste and boost efficiency.
According to a 2019 McKinsey & Company report, modular construction can speed up construction by as much as 50% and cut costs by 20%. They also note that modular construction could grow to a $130 billion industry in the United States and Europe by 2030.
Driving much of the growth is the need for complex, affordable structures due to urbanization and the desire for sustainable construction methods, according to the 2018 National Institute of Building Sciences study.
Prefab and Modular Construction Defined
For starters, offsite construction has been around for decades. Its ability to deliver projects faster and cheaper is an attractive option for a construction industry that has long struggled with productivity issues. When construction was booming, owners and contractors were often hard-pressed to find enough craft workers. They had begun to strongly embrace this project delivery approach in a big way—long before the pandemic.
Let’s review some of the different types and terms:
- Offsite construction is an umbrella term for prefab and modular. According to the NIBS, offsite construction involves planning, designing, fabrication, and assembly of a building at a location other than the actual area for rapid assembly at the site.
- Prefab construction is any structure that has its section designed in a factory. As a result, both modular and pre-manufactured structures are considered prefab construction. Also, prefab must meet state and federal building codes and undergo regular inspection.
- Panelized construction is another type of prefab. All the exterior walls are installed on-site with some arriving with windows and doors already installed. This can vary with manufacturers.
- Structural Insulated Panels are another form of panelized construction. These are panels that generally have two oriented strand boards that are fused with a type of insulating foam in the center. The boards are “locked” together and structural without the need for wood framing, which can be a vehicle for air infiltration. SIPs are extremely energy-efficient, are installed very quickly, and require fewer interior walls, which creates a very open interior area.
Overcoming Offsite Barriers
While the NIBS study showed growing use of offsite construction techniques like modular, they also found that some long-term projects were not as well suited for prefab elements. They cited barriers like the distance of the factory to the construction site, last-minute design changes, and the construction industry’s reliance on traditional methods.
In stark contrast to traditional construction, modular is regarded as less time-consuming, sustainable, safe, cost-efficient, and flexible. One of the most significant barriers involves the current culture of design and construction. The NIBS study found that late design changes, lack of collaboration, and an adversarial climate for project delivery were barriers blocking the wider adoption of offsite methods like modular.
Another benefit occurs when prefab structures are manufactured in a controlled environment and transported to the site. As such, contractors can monitor the quality of every section of the structure, which is not possible in the case of on-site or traditional construction.
Will Modular Become the New Normal?
As vaccines go into arms, it is likely that we can count on the construction landscape to change yet again. Will the hospitality, education, and medical sectors drive commercial construction while plans for new office buildings get shelved?
Moving beyond the COVID-19 crisis, McKinsey and Co. believe the industry should look for opportunities to shift more work off-site. They say suppliers and subcontractors should identify elements and subsystems that can be preassembled in a controlled environment.
The benefits, they say, could help building material manufacturers collaborate on designing new product features that could facilitate building-site activities. In addition, off-site construction like modular will continue to aid with sustainability goals by reducing materials waste, noise, and air dust as well as enabling circular building systems.
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