From World War I to BoKlok 'flat pack' homes, volumetric modular technology has transformed out of all recognition.
Despite the designation Modern Methods of Construction or MMC, modular construction stretches all the way back to WWI. And once again it was an acute housing shortage that threw the focus on modular construction when building materials were diverted to the war effort and skilled labour was scarce.
The search for a quick fix to the crisis resulted in a drive towards prefabrication as a feasible way to supplement traditional construction methods. The immediate post war surplus of steel and aluminium and surplus capacity in the industrial sector were critical drivers in the shift towards prefabrication which also secured jobs in modular construction for returning servicemen.
While early prefabs experimented with steel, timber, concrete and hybrid framed construction, the pioneering units of the 1940s were composed of 4 aluminium framed components. These components then gave way to panelised construction and eventually a resurgence of timber and steel in the 1980s.
Nowadays offsite construction blurs the lines between construction, engineering and manufacturing with a forward facing use of advanced technology. Meanwhile, changes to building regulations have created more rigorous standards for thermal, acoustic and safety performance.
Higher standards require high quality craftsmanship and today's modular units undergo stringent quality control. This is undertaken in regulated factory environments where external factors including weather are no longer an issue. The ability to run groundbreaking site works and offsite construction simultaneously reduces both build times and labour costs and ensures that modular builds have a smaller carbon footprint than traditionally constructed homes.
This heightened efficiency and guaranteed quality has an additional benefit, allowing constructors to customise their buildings to blend with any surroundings and meet the needs of any project.
Another advantage of modular construction is the ability to select materials for specific characteristics, to meet exact performance requirements. Sustainable materials are often specified and waste is significantly reduced when compared to traditional construction methods. Modular construction is sustainable throughout the project delivery process, with materials recycled wherever possible and components available in a range of sizes, making expansion straightforward.
Innovation and evolution
These innovative approaches are helping to revolutionise the construction industry. Unlike traditional methods of construction that can be riddled with pitfalls and are highly disruptive, modular construction is easy to plan and quick to install. And as the construction methods themselves evolve, so have attitudes to modular construction and the way prefabricated buildings can be used.
An obvious example is the Nightingale hospitals around the UK, no longer is modular build all about wrinkly tin boxes used as offices on a construction site. Modular cabins are now enjoying a variety of more sophisticated uses from location trailers and coffee shops to temporary Covid-19 testing centres.
Tackling the housing crisis
Modular seems to have come full circle and is once again being touted as the answer to the housing crisis.
Approaches such as fabric first can be used to create highly energy efficient homes designed to meet 2030 carbon zero targets. Having played a key role in providing healthcare facilities during the pandemic, modular buildings are more in demand than ever creating jobs in modular construction that are helping to diversify the workforce and bridge the skills gap.