The popularity of modular construction is changing the construction industry by offering solutions to long-standing problems
Modular construction is the process of assembling homes and buildings using prefabricated parts (modules) and piecing them together—similar to a child building with Legos but on a much bigger scale. The process is becoming increasingly commonplace, with a recent study by MarketsandMarkets™ anticipating the worldwide value of the modular construction market to hit $157.19 billion by 2023.
There are numerous benefits to modular construction when compared to traditional construction, perhaps most notable is cost. Both builders and buyers are finding big savings on modular construction. Prefabricated modules mean less labor and less time spent building onsite which allows for construction of buildings in smaller time frames, resulting in lower costs all around.
Modules are built in a factory in a controlled environment using repetitive procedures and reliable machinery that’s unaffected by inclement weather. Using precise equipment allows for more detailed planning which assures that each structure needs an exact amount of raw material, reducing waste.
Sustainability and Safety
Savings aside, modular construction could also prove to be a boon for the environment. Less time spent building onsite means less of an impact on the surrounding area—a fact that’s especially important when building in remote locations.
Additionally, building in a modular construction facility makes it easier to reuse waste materials. Every year 135 million tons of construction material is trashed, leftover material from modular construction is easier to store and reuse because it has only been used in a controlled environment.
Solving Housing Problems
Modular construction is nothing new. Sweden boasts a shocking 84 percent of its single-family homes as prefabricated. This form of construction is especially appealing in a country like Sweden where frigid winters limit the seasons when traditional construction can take place.
Meanwhile, Japan—in response to a massive population increase—has turned to modular construction to build more than nine million homes since the early Sixties. The country now builds about 25 percent of its new homes in modular fashion
Currently, a little more than 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities, and that number is expected to reach two-thirds over the next couple of decades. As urbanization continues and more and more of the population moves from rural areas to crowded cities, modular construction offers an inexpensive and quick way to address housing issues.
There are currently around 20 percent less construction workers, plumbers, and electricians ready to be hired for commercial and residential projects, driving up the cost of labor and creating a bidding war for contractors. As a result, there is rising interest in modular construction in the major metropolitan areas of the U.S.
Finding affordable housing is a problem for many residents of California’s big cities, especially in the Bay Area. Aside from the value of the land in areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, a big part of the problem is simply construction costs.
New companies like Factory_OS and Katerra have emerged in and around the Bay Area, offering modular construction solutions to the area’s increasingly dire housing crisis. Investors have seen the promise in modular building and flooded such startups with millions of dollars. Similar stories can be found in other cities facing impacted housing, including Austin and Seattle, where Kasita and Blokable, respectively, have emerged as their city’s leaders in modular building.
Google already tested the waters in modular construction when it built massive data centers out of refurbished shipping containers all around the world to process the 40 million search queries it receives every second. Now, it has teamed with Factory_OS to build modular housing in Silicon Valley to provide affordable temporary housing for its workers.
Of course, the benefits of modular construction extend beyond the housing market. Massive companies like Marriott and Starbucks have seen the upside of prefabrication and are employing it in their corporate efforts.
In 2017, Marriott opened a 97-bedroom hotel in Folsom, California which featured prefabricated bedrooms and bathrooms. The rooms were built in Boise, Idaho, transported to California, then stacked by a crane. The success of this style of building has led Marriott to build other hotels in this fashion, including a Hawthorne, California hotel down the street from Space X which has more than 350 rooms.
Starbucks, on the other hand, has been building “mini-cafes” made out of recycled shipping containers since 2011. There are now 45 prefab drive-thru Starbucks in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Utah. Not only are these sites unique in appearance, they require less water and energy, they are less disruptive to the neighborhood in which they are being built.
The rise of modular construction is not without its critics. Some worry that such construction could be creatively limited and result in buildings looking pretty much the same. However, with a little creativity and ingenuity, buildings can still be pleasing to the eye—as exemplified by Whistler Athlete’s Village which was designed to host Canadian Olympic athletes and their families..
Another challenge is trade unions who worry about jobs not meeting union standards or being outsourced. The Carpenters Union of San Francisco was early to get involved with modular development in their city, seeing the possibility of providing different training and career opportunities for tits members.
There are some adjustments to be made as the construction industry places an increased emphasis on modular construction, but for now at least, many in the industry seem to see an upside that is worth the investment.