Manufacturing a New Kind of Construction
What comes to mind when you think about modular design? Did you come up with an image of half a house on the back of a flatbed trailer, or one of a modern high rise? While most people these days still have memories of the double-wide’s on the highway, there are more and more projects appearing in unexpected places that are incorporating modular design, and in most cases you wouldn’t even know it when you see it.
What makes something modular?
Modular design by definition is the breaking down of something into self-contained or universal elements. This workflow is most commonly associated with the factory assembly line. Look at how cars are made, for example; whole sections of a car are pieced together in sizeable units, as opposed to piece-by-piece.
When applied to buildings, this similarly translates into the compartmentalization of groups of elements in the design. Those old-school structures hauled on trailers are an example where they break the structure into two simple parts, and then install it on a foundation that is constructed on site. Kind of like mating a car body with the interior and assembling them on the frame.
Does modular only apply to cookie-cutter projects?
While this may have been true in the past, it’s far from true today. In many ways modular design is a method of producing parts of a building, as opposed to creating an entire model that represents a complete end product. This change in the process is largely made possible by today’s modern design tools. These technologies not only enable designers to create 3D layouts, they also enable them to plan and visualize the entire construction, which empowers them to compartmentalize and schedule the build-out process step-by-step as in an assembly line.
Projects like hotels, hospitals, and dormitories are most often associated with modern modular design, having programs that tend to have elements that are repeated ten’s to hundred’s of times. Almost any project can benefit from this method of construction.
As in manufacturing, modular design enables economies of scale throughout the design-build process. In fact, in many cases construction companies can even cut back on transportation costs by utilizing a nearby site to layout and fabricate the components or segments prior to moving them to the site for installation.
So why do this again?
The most obvious benefits of the modular design approach are the ability to streamline the production schedule and thus reduce costs. But there are less obvious and broader-reaching benefits as well, including increasing sustainability and safety.
Sustainability is becoming increasingly important for the construction industry. It is estimated that the waste from construction projects accounts for up to 40% of our solid waste stream nationally, and a study by the NYC Department of Sanitation has stated that construction and demolition waste accounts for 60% of NYC waste. This is where applying the assembly line concept can have such a great impact; less waste will be generated because materials are stored in a controlled environment. Further, since many elements are being produced at the same time there is more opportunity for reuse and sharing of materials during production.
The safety aspect is one that appeals to both the workers as well as those in charge. If you ask a construction worker if they would rather work up in the open air of a building unprotected from the elements and without heat in winter, or in a warehouse near the site that is heated and on the ground, I would guess that most would choose the latter. The ability to manage and control the environment is a benefit not just those workers, but also for any materials stored within. From a management standpoint, benefits include lower insurance premiums thanks to safer, more controlled working environments.
An added bonus: studies show that the happier the workers, the better and more consistent the end results, which means a better product for the owner and a better experience for the building occupants.
Who is actually doing modular?
You might be surprised at how many. There’s a new 32 story residential high rise in NYC that is being built in a modular fashion, and a wealth of actual project examples, ranging from the National Institute of Standards and Technology headquarters, to the Grand Floridian Hotel to the stadiums of the Qatar World Cup. This methodology is becoming so popular, in fact, that it was the entire theme of a recent BIMForum convention, a biannual industry conference. As many expert-lead sessions at this conference alluded, the future of modular design is only getting bigger, particularly as we continue to see advancements in the types and amount of projects.
There is an argument that putting building design on the factory line eliminates the artistry in the process. But modern modular workflows demonstrate that the two can co-exist, maintaining all the art associated with creating iconic structures while introducing efficiencies to the process and enabling us to bring truly great buildings to market faster and smarter.