What is Modular Construction?

What is Modular Construction

What is Modular Construction?


Modular construction is a new hot topic in North America. The buzz can be seen in interesting conceptual videos posted on social media sites every week. But beyond the interesting concepts, what is modular construction? And how is it impacting the construction industry? SoftBank Group Corp. is putting its massive $93 billion tech-investment fund to work in construction with an $865 million bet on Katerra Inc., a technology company that builds modular housing off the construction site.


An Overview of Modular Construction

Modular construction is a type of off-site production. Factories build and then transport components to the jobsite. When someone decides to use modular construction, the first step is to find a factory that is willing to build a modular unit to their specifications. Because modular construction factories will build units to the specifications of the project rather than just copies of a unit. They can manufacture the interior and exterior and other aspects specifically for a project. The majority of the time factories construct modules to 90%. So the site crew doesn’t have to do very much to finish a project. So all that’s left for a project is practically transport and installation.


What’s really interesting about this is that all types of modular construction incorporate that. However, this is where structural modular construction starts to branch. Because there are re-locatable modular units and permanent modular units. Permanent modular units will be at the location for three years or more. When these units are delivered to a location, they’re permanently installed at the location. Whereas with re-locatable modular units, project managers or building managers generally move them before the three-year mark. Permanent modular units fit International Building Codes and are usually indistinguishable from traditionally built building. And these permanent structures represent 50% of the modular industry.


What Counts as Modular Construction?

Modular construction can be something that is placed on the unit or a traditional project, like a fitted bathroom. The term doesn’t just apply to structural units.


These permanent and relocatable structures use all the same materials as traditional construction. However, not every factory will offer every option. Many factories specialize in one type in order to cut back on costs and stay efficient. But project managers can find factories to manufacture units in materials that benefit a project, the job site, and project costs.


Traditional construction can incorporate modular units in a variety of ways. For example, a modular construction project could incorporate specific units into a traditional structure. This can be seen in places like additions or repairs. It means modular units can be built to certain specifications and are meant to make construction easier.

Off-site-Prefab Construction

How Does Modular Construction Work?

Modular construction requires an intense design process to ensure that the prefabricated units or pieces will fit the project. So they won’t be larger than the space, and they’ll still fit together. Then they go through a series of engineering requirements to ensure they meet local, state, federal and other building codes.


Structural units are assembled to meet the project needs. For example, workers construct the frame, insulate the subfloor, and install floor. Workers pass the unit down the line and install other parts from drywall to finishing touches. They can even install electrical, mechanical and other services in the factory. Finally, it’s transported to the site. But depending on the size of the project, the factory can delay transport for certain parts. So units aren’t just waiting at the site for days at a time. At installation, the only thing left is completing any finishing touches and connecting utilities.


Other Aspects of Modular Construction

Europe has used modular construction for about a decade, not only for temporary structures but for permanent structures. And now we’re seeing a rise of it in North America. It has a variety of uses outside of temporary classrooms. Hospitals, dorm rooms, apartments, hotels, and similar buildings, benefit from it.


Part of the reason why Europe embraced modular construction is because of how green it is. By constructing the units in factories there’s actually less waste generated. It reduces the raw material demand and minimizes the amount of energy needed to create new buildings. Plus, it’s easier to disassemble, relocate, and refurbish units and parts of units for other uses.


Modular construction also took off in Europe because of how fast it can be. Projects take about two thirds to half of the time that traditional projects need. The factory setting is part of the reason why it is faster. Because the factory will have all necessary tools and materials. The other part is because building is no longer weather dependent.


Modular construction is a growing part of the construction industry. Companies will need comprehensive schedules and coordination to keep up with it. Because of the speed, environmental friendliness, and quality, it will be used more frequently in the coming years.



National Institute of Building Sciences