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Debunking the myths of modular construction

Wernick Group Marketing Manager, Leigh Fennell, discusses some of the misconceptions about modular offsite construction

Posted by Stephanie Broad | September 02, 2016 | Facilities & buildings

Are modular buildings of high quality?

Many people’s perceptions of modular buildings stem from their experience of old, leaky, prefabricated classrooms. These were often supposed to be temporary but often had to be endured for use by schools across the country for decades. Before I worked in the offsite construction sector this was certainly my own opinion. I have now come to understand this presumption that modular buildings are of low quality is a misconception that is easily dispelled.

Firstly, modular buildings follow the same set of regulations as traditional construction and must therefore meet the same standards of quality. Building modules are manufactured in tightly controlled factory environments meeting ISO 9001 quality management standards and often IS0 14001 environmental standards.

Another comment I would make on this point is that many the materials used in modular building, such as the steel frame, are exactly the same materials used for a traditional build. The only difference being that the construction takes place off site in a more controlled factory environment.

As testament to their quality many offsite construction companies will now offer a 25-year warranty as standard with their buildings which also have an expected design life of over 100 years!

St Giles on the Heath School

Are modular buildings permanent structures?

While modular buildings can be used as a temporary solution the quality of build, as mentioned, means they are built to last.  Most people will only see modular buildings in the role of short-term accommodation provided while a new development is under construction or deployed following an emergency such as a fire or a flood, leading to the understanding that these buildings are always temporary. In fact, these uses reveal nothing about the quality or permanence of the building, but how quickly they can be installed.

Just like a traditional building, modular buildings are steel-framed in construction and can provide permanent accommodation solutions, including purpose-designed schools, hospitals, office blocks, police cells and even nuclear power station accommodation. The end product is often a building that its hard to imagine was manufactured in a factory.

Slough Eton College

Is modular construction a proven concept?

Often in the media, modularisation is framed as a new innovation in construction that could change all future building projects. This is unfortunately not quite the case. The first recorded use of modular buildings as we know them today was in the 19th century. Some leading offsite manufacturers have been in business for over 80 years and there are many examples of their buildings still standing today that were manufactured many decades ago.

Are the cost savings of offsite construction (when compared to traditional construction) exaggerated?

It’s commonly stated by offsite specialists that a modular building is far more economical when compared to traditional construction, with a saving of around 50 per cent achievable. Let’s look at the facts. A report by Laing O’Rourke, who developed a modular system with an engineering company, suggested it could build a 1,300 pupil school for £14.3 million, £6 million cheaper than an equivalent school under the Building Schools for the Future Programme (BSF).

The fact that much of the modular construction process is carried out offsite in a controlled factory environment means projects can be completed much faster than traditional construction methods with no delays due to bad weather.

In many instances a more efficient design with modular also means maintenance costs are reduced.

Uppingham Community College


Are modular buildings more sustainable?  

By process, offsite construction is also far more environmentally friendly when compared to traditional construction. This greatly reduced programme inevitably minimises the impact on the environment.

Modular buildings are produced in a controlled factory environment, in which all waste including steel, aluminium and timber is separated for recycling with almost nothing ending up as landfill. The process is not subject to bad weather, and subsequent delays this may cause. As the time on site is reduced, so is the impact of the construction process on the site and surrounding environment. Modules can also be designed to a specifically optimised size in order to match the supplied sizes of the building materials, further reducing the amount of waste.

Typically, the end product is a building, which achieves an Energy Performance Asset rating (EPA) of B, as standard. An ‘A’ rating is easily achieved when sustainable options, such as solar panels are incorporated.

Are modular buildings all the same?

Ok, so it’s clear that a modular construction is a sustainable process that lowers cost and offers shorter and more dependable build programmes, but does the modular approach have limitations in building design? There’s no escaping the fact that modular buildings lend themselves to standardisation, and it is obviously more straightforward to manufacture identical units than a variety of different ones. However, clients are increasingly looking for buildings that cater to their specific needs and are quite understandably less interested in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

In terms of providing ‘traditional’ finishes, we are increasingly being asked to provide extensions to existing buildings while maintaining a continuous external appearance. This can be done so effectively that often you cannot tell which is the old traditional building and which is the new modular extension.

While modular specialists can offer a bespoke design and build service, increasingly architects are bringing their designs to life in a modular environment. I believe good architects are entirely capable of designing attractive buildings that use a high degree of modularisation. Many are already working with modular providers to great effect. Nothing speaks more loudly than the buildings themselves and I would encourage any architect to seek out the possibilities offered with offsite construction by reflecting on the finished product.

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