Modular construction is by no means a new concept. Decades after the post-World War II pre-fabrication boom, coupled with the rise of digitalisation and new construction technologies, a new generation of modular buildings is disrupting the sector. Here Nick Cowley, Managing Director of windows and doors supplier to modular construction projects, Euramax, investigates the technologies that are driving modular building into the 21st century and beyond.
Between 1945 and 1949, over 156,000 prefabricated homes were built across Britain. As the country set out its post-war recovery plan, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to build half a million pre-fabs to act as a stop-gap measure in between resident’s bomb-ravaged homes and more permanent housing. Many surpassed their short life expectancy, though there are few pre-fabs around today.
Why is this history lesson important? Because, just like in post-war Britain, pre-fabrication could act as a remedy to many of today’s societal issues. The current affordable housing crisis, which will require the Government to fulfil a 300,000 homes-a-year quota to alleviate, paired with a growing population, will also require a fast and effective construction solution. But unlike the pre-fabs of the 1940s, modern construction technologies offer a more permanent fix.
A technology that certainly wasn’t available in Churchill’s time is building information modelling (BIM), which allows modular project workers to know more about their building, before work has begun. The development of BIM has changed the way that companies interact with data. The 3D modelling process improves the planning, design and construction of buildings, including those manufactured offsite.
Creating a digital representation of the physical or functional characteristics of a building has obvious benefits. BIM can act as the integration software for a modular construction, basing its model on the intended production, execution and design of pre-fabricated panels. BIM can also help modular construction workers by providing the insight and tools to efficiently plan out their design. Because work on a modular structure’s site doesn’t begin until its panels are made, this digital forward planning is key to a project’s success.
BIM can also enhance communication between project participants. The technology can analyse the exact data of the construction site and give precise measurements of the pre-fabricated modules to sub-contractors. This means any third-party components, such as windows and doors, can be constructed perfectly and without the risk of defects or leakages. BIM’s data can also be sent off for the approval of regulators, such as those for fire and building safety, so that the final building can be guaranteed regulatory compliance.
Post-war, economising building materials was an essential money-saving exercise. While construction managers will seek to cut costs today, reducing material waste also has a vital sustainability motive.
In July the UK Government set aside £149m of investment towards material innovation in the construction and heavy industry, making it an important focus area. Producing construction materials such as steel and concrete are some of the most energy-intensive processes in the world, so project managers must do all they can to use their modular building materials effectively.
BIM can act as a waste reduction solution. By using 3D models, BIM users no longer have to rely on 2D paper drawings or blueprints, which can quickly become obsolete when plans change. Numerous paper drawings can be wasteful themselves, but BIM also helps reduce the amount of wasted building material.
The visualisation of the final result improves both the designers’ and the contractors’ understanding of what is being built. As this visualisation happens before saw meets timber, any re-work due to misunderstandings can be significantly reduced. While offsite construction lends a much higher degree of control to a project, mistakes could still arise during panel fabrication, among contractors like electricians or plumbers, or once panels are joined together onsite. By implementing a single-source, collaborative technology like BIM, wasteful errors across the modular supply chain are far less likely to arise.
Another technology that adds digital layers to the construction of a physical site is augmented reality (AR). In the modular planning process, architects, designers, builders, engineers and project managers can simply use an AR device to project a building plan or model of a physical space and discuss details with a remarkably accurate visual tool.
AR tools can be easily accessible via smartphones, although devices such as AR glasses and helmets could make their way onto construction sites in the future. Because much of a modular build is produced offsite, and is transported for assembly once its components are manufactured, AR can give site managers a realistic and detailed view of the finished building before construction reaches these final stages. This could be particularly useful when showcasing the building to investors, who may struggle to envisage the final result when most of the groundwork is being done in a controlled factory.
Building the future
Technologies such as BIM and augmented reality deliver a futuristic approach to an almost century-old building method. While post-war pre-fabs drastically differ from the housing estates, schools and offices we can build today, all of these structures can be built using a process that tackles many productivity and quality challenges.
In addition to deploying these technologies, modular project managers must partner with experienced and knowledgeable suppliers. Whether that’s for electrical work, plumbing and heating, or vital building components like windows and doors, modern-day modular methods and reliable partners must work hand-in-hand.
Euramax supplies windows and doors that can fulfil the requirements of any modular construction project. Products can be made bespoke to order, in large and smaller volumes. If you’re looking for a supplier for your next project, contact the team today.