Why Modular Makes Sense

When was the last time you bought a new car and the dealer told you they'd order all the parts, and have the shop mechanics put them together, so they'd have your new car ready for you in eight or nine months? I would suspect that there are very few people who have ever had that experience.
The placement of a prefabricated component of the
Surrey Pretrial Services Facility in British Columbia.
And there's a good reason for that—manufacturing has become extremely good at off-site prefabrication and assembly. A car plant doesn't actually make anything—they assemble other components that are made elsewhere. Manufacturers have found that this increases efficiency, reduces waste, results in better quality, and lets them get the finished products to the customer far sooner.

A New Approach

Unfortunately the car scenario I described above is very similar to how the vast majority of projects in the construction industry are built. Individual trades (craft workers) are contracted who, in turn, order their materials, wait to have them delivered to site, and then start putting them together when it is feasible according to other on-site activities and the schedule. By necessity, this is a linear approach—activity B cannot start until activity A is finished. Good examples of this are interior walls or mechanical /electrical rough-in. Typically, these activities can’t get started until the structure is substantially completed.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Off-site prefabrication is becoming far more prevalent, particularly elsewhere in the world. Perhaps you've seen the YouTube video of the 30-story building in China that went up in fifteen days?
Unfortunately, when you mention "modular" to many people, their first reaction is often not positive. Many people associate the word “modular” with products like jobsite trailers or old-style portable school classrooms. These were products that were used well beyond their intended lifespan and gained an (undeserved) reputation as being cheap, temporary and of poor quality. These are not good representatives of what is possible in today's modular industry. Modular construction takes off-site fabrication to its ultimate level. Whole buildings can be built off-site and then erected quickly on-site.

Quality Like Never Before

Quality is a difficult factor to manage on any site-built project—many different tasks are happening simultaneously involving many different workers, at different locations on-site, and often in less than optimal environmental conditions. With so many variables, getting consistency in the end product is going to be a challenge. With a modular approach, the same work is now done in a controlled factory environment, with the same skilled workers doing standardized tasks efficiently, at a location optimized for production. By removing the variables that would be present on a typical jobsite, the output quality is going to be far more consistent.
While modular components of a project can use the same materials that would be used in a stick-built environment, better materials can often be used just because the controlled factory environment makes their application more feasible. Add to this the fact that for shipping, modular components have to be structurally more rigid and stronger than traditional stick-built assemblies, and this is certainly not cheapening the end product.

Making Modular “Permanent”

More and more modular is being used in high-quality, permanent applications—so much so that the term “Permanent Modular Construction” has been coined by the off-site industry to differentiate it from the kind of modular construction that is needed for temporary solutions.
In addition to full modular prefabrication however, there are plenty of opportunities for the partial prefabrication of projects. In theory, with enough planning and organization, very few parts of a project can't be pre-assembled off-site ahead of time, accelerating the ultimate install.
At PCL we are now asking ourselves the questions, "What do we HAVE to build on-site?” and then, “How do we find a way to build everything else off-site?" By asking these questions, we allow ourselves to think differently about solutions, investigate other building materials, and get creative about how a project can go together, which ultimately saves our clients time and money. We start to look at the construction site, not as a fabrication location, but more as an assembly facility—for all the stakeholders involved on a project, this is a very powerful approach.
So next time you are considering a traditional, on-site approach to a "construction" project, ask yourself whether, if this was a car, you would build it piece-by-piece, while being exposed to the elements, over several months, and why would you want to?


  • That's a fair comment Alan. Certain projects provide the degree of repetition that makes a full modular approach more practical - hotels, student residences etc., and others where the repetition comes in the number of facilities being repeated e.g. fast food / retail (smaller buildings but repeated many times over), but you're right that not all projects suit this approach. However I would suggest that there are many parts within a construction project that are typically repeat objects that still make sense for an off-site approach - we feel its important to look for these at all scales, not just the full building.

    Mark Taylor
  • Hi Mark, Certainly a creative analogy with the cars but I am not sure if it's a fair one, especially for full modular prefabrication. Cars are manufactured in large batches where every batch (model) would have hundreds, if not thousands of identical cars. In construction you rarely have a situation where you need to build a thousand identical structures.

    Alan Abbas
  • Thanks for your added input, Matt. In addition to your comments on off-gassing, I would also suggest that the fact that the work takes place in a warm and dry controlled environment, which is far easier to keep clean than a construction site, and that is also guaranteed to be smoke-free, all contribute to improving the indoor air quality too.

    Mark Taylor
  • Hi Terry, One big benefit modular construction can offer for LEED projects is improved indoor air quality, since products can be allowed to off-gas beforehand. But that depends on whether finishes are applied on or off-site.

    Matt Waller
  • Hi Terry - there are certainly many soft side benefits to modular in addition to those I included. You mention LEED, and certainly modular and prefabrication have a number of environmental benefits, but it also has numerous other advantages - workforce diversity, reduced community impact, and improved site logistics are all topics I plan to cover in future blogs, so watch this space!

    Mark Taylor
  • Hello Mark. I enjoyed your blog posting. Has there been any other thoughts to describing the softer benefits. Take LEED as an example. Surely the modular approach has reduced the amount of movement for people and material....perhaps it could be an innovation credit?

    Terry Olynyk


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