Modular buildings have come a long way since the maligned post-war era, when the UK saw a glut of quick-build housing developed in a short period of time.
As a result of their perceived poor quality, ‘pre-fab’ became a much-derided term, with a return to traditional building methods applauded and most of the modular 1950’s and 60’s homes demolished over the following decades.
Yet, as we look to the future, it is a new generation of modular builds that offer one of the most viable solutions for a government looking to tackle a housing crisis, while also dealing with intense pressure on capacity within the education and healthcare sectors.
If the Government is to meet the lofty ambitions outlined in its Construction 2025 strategy – which commits to 50% faster delivery of new-build and refurbished assets and mandates building information modelling (BIM) for all centrally procured government contracts – offsite design and manufacture has an essential role to play.
Recognition of this is one of the reasons why last year, the Government pledged £2bn to offsite manufacturing techniques in the public sector (and an additional £3bn for the housing sector) – with healthcare and education two of the main areas set to benefit.
This new generation of modular buildings are very different to their predecessors. Technology has enabled modular to move on, and the modern approach is recognised as being able to deliver high-quality, tailored new-builds, which can be delivered in a cost and time effective way.
With assets constructed within a controlled factory environment, quality can be improved and traditional issues affecting on-site construction – such as inclement weather – can be mitigated to enhance speed of delivery. The opportunity to standardise elements of the designs to improve efficiency – and then reconfigure designs as building needs adapt – means modular can offer flexibility along with quality and efficiency.
These credentials help explain why a modular approach is well suited to the education sector.
It is widely recognised that pressure for school places is growing across many parts of the country – and it falls to educational establishments, local authorities and central government to address the demand.
Modular solutions allow for the provision of both permanent and semi-permanent classrooms, sixth form blocks, sports facilities and nurseries to be delivered quickly in response to this surging demand.
Offsite construction means less time is needed on site – minimising disruption to teachers and pupils who still need to utilise school spaces, while reducing the period of time where a construction site on school grounds poses a health and safety risk.
At the same time that our population of school students is booming – we also see a population that is ageing – with well documented pressure being put on the health service as a consequence.
Again, a modular approach can offer advantages to the health sector where repeatable elements allow for standardised assets, such as wards and operating theatres, to be delivered much more quickly than under traditional methods.
Working on these elements in factory-controlled conditions also allows for ‘in-situ’ recycling – while the increased quality of the assets themselves mean superior standards of thermal insulation can be achieved. These elements boost the sustainability credentials of modular builds.
Britain’s affordable housing crisis, too, can be eased by the potential offered by modular. Homes can be delivered faster, quality guaranteed and, crucially, flexibility offered to local authorities. Modular housing can be delivered quickly in areas of high housing demand – but it also has the capacity to be redeployed as ‘plug in’ units. This means housing can be designed so it can be moved to meet shifting patterns of demand across a region – an innovation never realised under the traditional construction process.
From an architect’s perspective, the importance of creating a strong sense of place in developments, whether they be schools, hospitals or housing developments, is paramount. In this sense, the use of BIM in modular projects allows these places to be constructed digitally first – adding certainty to their performance once realised in the built environment.
Innovation in the design and manufacturing process, including the alignment of BIM with modern fabrication processes, allows scope for innovation and creativity in off-site design and manufacture. This means modular builds can be tailored to fit in with their surroundings with features sympathetic to the existing environment – such as timber panels or balconies.
It is the ability to combine the benefits of modular with the art of placemaking that makes the approach such a compelling solution to those operating in design and construction – as well as decision makers in Government. These factors combined explain the emergence of a consensus around the potential modular solutions offer – and their increasing uptake in both the public and private sector.
There now exists a growing awareness of the benefits modern modular assets can provide. Fading fast are memories of the stereotypical pre-fab units of the mid-20th century – replaced instead by the reality of the high-quality assets we see delivered by offsite construction today. The Government is right to embrace a modular future.
David de Sousa is director at architecture and building consultancy practice AHR