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Dan Smith explores how modular can deliver the buildings we urgently need

The UK construction sector, probably more than any other national industry, has been warned over many decades that it has to improve – ‘modernise or die’ was the emphatic subtitle of the most recent report from Mark Farmer in 2016.

Construction has a reputation for being slow to change. It’s a fragmented sector, with numerous small businesses doing what they can on small margins. Much as they would like to see change, it can be difficult to drive from the bottom up.

However, the construction industry now faces a fight to regain ground lost during the COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent working practice rules that make site work slower. Could this be the point that modern methods of construction, such as modular, can make their presence felt?  

At a time when construction business needs to make up for lost time (and revenues), and when we have already made so many other changes to work safely to avoid the spread of COVID-19, it makes sense to consider more long-lasting and widespread modernisation.

Early modular adopters are swimming against the tide. We need more clients and contractors to follow them so that modular becomes common-practice.

Dan Headshot BW Dan Smith Corporate Business Development Executive

Off site construction

Terms such as 'modular', 'offsite' and 'prefabricated' are often used interchangeably.

Both modular and prefabricated buildings can be deemed as ‘offsite’ methods since the bulk of work takes place in factories not on building sites. Designing Buildings Wiki highlights the following differences. 

Prefabricated – assemblies that are manufactured under factory conditions and then transported to construction sites for incorporation into building works. Most often used in residential blocks, hotels and houses. In building services, we are seeing elements such as prefabricated HVAC solutions becoming more widely used.

Modular – modular buildings (also referred to as ‘volumetric construction’) are made up of components manufactured on assembly lines in factories and then assembled on site. The modular parts can include walls, doors, ceilings and windows. Modular buildings can also consist of several prefabricated parts, such as bathroom pods, for example.

Higher quality

So the term ‘modular’ can refer to a broad range of techniques and outcomes. The common characteristic they share is that they shift work into factories.

Many studies have now shown that this approach leads to higher quality outcomes:  Fewer errors in assembly and less re-working, as well as higher levels of health and safety.

Global management consultancy, McKinsey produced a report in 2019 titled ‘Modular Construction: From projects to products’. Their research highlight two critical benefits of modular methods for construction clients: a 50% cut in the time taken to complete projects; and a reduction in costs of up to 20%.

Swimming against the tide

But these benefits are not simple to access. Modular construction means changing the time-honoured practices of construction.

Perhaps most importantly, the decision to use the offsite approach needs to be made right at the start of the project – this will affect every subsequent decision.

Another significant hurdle is that because offsite is not yet widely used, there isn't capacity in the UK to cope with more offsite projects.

Early modular adopters are swimming against the tide. We need more clients and contractors to follow them so that modular becomes common-practice and capacity grows. It is a Catch-22 situation, but this may be about to change.

A huge demand

McKinsey identified two paramount features that determine how fast a market switches to modular construction: demand for new housing; and the availability and cost of skilled on-site labour. McKinsey describes them as: “Strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making.”

We cannot meet the demand for housing using traditional construction methods. If housing leads the way in modular, it opens up opportunities for other sectors to make more of the benefits of offsite methods.  

What’s more, developments such as BIM and digital modelling make planning for prefabricated and modular developments more straightforward.

Integrating services

As a manufacturer, Mitsubishi Electric has many years’ experience of supplying our HVAC technology to projects that are making the most of the benefits of offsite. Our products integrate into modules during initial construction at the factory, or they can be added on-site in flexible phases to suit the modular approach.

We understand the challenges of adopting new methods and have adapted to ensure we can offer flexible solutions that provide reliable performance. You can find out more about our solutions for modular projects by clicking on the link to the side.

Our current circumstances call for new ways of thinking and working. I believe that the time is right for our industry to embrace modular construction – and to aim for lasting change that benefits everyone.

Dan Smith is a Corporate Business Development Executive