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Modular vs Traditional Construction

17th May 2021

Modular vs Traditional Construction

For a long time, the traditional method of brick-and-mortar construction has been embraced as the norm in the UK construction industry. Until recently any form of alternative construction was largely shunned, as it harked back to the post-war age of prefabricated buildings, both domestically and commercially. However, modular buildings are no longer a temporary solution to a temporary problem but have become the backbone into leading the way for modern methods of construction. The UK Government have responded to this by releasing a Government Publication outlining a £3bn funding framework specifically aimed at evolving the push for modular buildings to become the new norm.

What is modular construction?

Modular construction is a process of using off-site manufacturing to prefabricate sections of a building in a factory, ready for delivery to site as sectional components.

Modular build

Image Source:Barker & TG Escapes Hendon Dance & Design Studio 

There are also different types of Modular construction which form the overall basis of off-site manufacturing but not limited to:

  • Panels that have been manufactured off-site and then assembled on-site resulting in a three-dimensional structure. This could be such things as SIPS Panels that are used more commonly in the United States but have become more widely used in the UK in recent years. 
  • Controlled factory setting where the construction is classed as ‘volumetric construction’ to produce a three-dimensional modular structure prior to transportation to site. 
  • Systems where both panels and volumetric construction is used to create a ‘hybrid’ form of construction. This is more common where there is a tight site that cannot facilitate a purely volumetric construction and requires certain elements to be panelled, thus more flexible in the approach.

Financial options

There are a variety of options when it comes to deciding how you can finance a modular building. The first and most common finance option is to pay for the building through funding streams, either secured through a framework or via private means.

Another option is to undertake the construction of a modular building via a leasing agreement. Leasing buildings has become increasingly popular due to the flexible lending options. Also there may be a particular need that may not be required in two years and so leasing a building that can be de-constructed and removed from site quickly is ideal.

Both options, without proper planning and advice can carry an element of risk with funding, as there is normally a large advance payment that covers the costs of all off-site manufacturing. This up-front cost does not initially add value to the actual site. This way of paying for this is extremely common in many other sectors, but the construction industry has always relied on a “pay what is on site” attitude. This however is changing with many elements of construction even on traditional sites changing to elemental off-site manufacturing (take pre-cast concrete staircases as an example).

Naturally with the guidance from the government being released in March 2021 to announce a funding framework for modular construction, all of the above financing options link in with the £3bn DfE offsite framework. This framework, which is free of charge, is available to Local authorities, diocese, and academy trusts.

Lifecycle

The longevity of modular buildings is often misinterpreted as a ‘quick solution to a temporary problem’. However, the developments in off-site manufacturing have progressed such that the design of these buildings can stand up to the same scrutiny as traditionally constructed buildings. Impacts the aesthetics are not always affected, for example Green Park Student accommodation for Berkeley homes in Bath is a strong indication of how a building can have the quality of a traditional build whilst being modular in construction. 

Green Park House

Image Source: https://elements-europe.com/projects/green-park-house-bath-student-room-pods/ 

How does Modular Construction realistically compare to Traditional Construction?

Pros

Time: Something which is as valuable in construction as achieving the budget is achieving the programme. Modular buildings have achieved extraordinary on-site programme reductions, leading to the benefits of early occupation.

Schedule

Image Source: https://www.modular.org/HtmlPage.aspx?name=why_modular

Cost & Quality: Modular Buildings have for a long time been seen as a ‘cheap but low quality’. However, the 21st century has brought a whole new aspect to modular buildings in that the fabrication and aesthetic quality is as enticing as the price. The reality of using modular construction is that with correct prior engagement early in the RIBA stages, the building could be occupied up to 50% more quickly than a traditional construction, once works start on site.

Adaptableness: A sure advantage modular buildings have had since their conception is the flexibility of the building for the occupant. Modular construction allows a space to be used to its maximum ability whilst allowing further expansion or even re-use of the building. Whist 2021 may require the need for a bank of classrooms, 2027 may require open an open plan workspace, all of which is achievable with modular construction.

Cons

Access & Delivery:  Due to the off-site construction of a modular building, the sections may be large and difficult to deliver to site. This can cause issue with tight sites and so particular attention must be paid to the viability of the site.

Pre-Construction Planning:  It is vital that there is early engagement with specialists for modular construction to be sustainable. Without correct planning of each individual section of the building, the project could risk confusion and delays.

Design Changes: Whilst modular buildings allow for the occupant to adapt depending on their needs, during the design stage it is difficult to make any major changes. Traditional buildings, because of the nature of their design allow for changes to be made later in the project. It is vital that early advise is gained on the suitability of the site for modular construction as well as the future requirements of the building.

What does the future hold for Modular Construction?

It is unlikely that modular buildings will overtake traditional build in popularity any time soon, but with the increasing focus on renewable energy and sustainability in construction it is proving to be the way forward if we are to keep building whilst reducing our carbon emissions.

The key for modular construction is not to see it as ‘the solution’ but as ‘a solution’. Whilst it may work wonders for some sites, it may not be as suitable for others. A global situation like the Covid-19 Pandemic has highlighted that in times of urgency there must be a solution that not only works financially but can be built in limited timescales.

There will always be drive in the construction industry to lower costs and reduce the programme and, where traditional constriction cannot achieve this, modular construction can step in to save valuable time, money and increase energy-efficiency which is so urgently needed.