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Jun 18 2015

Building a modular future

Sky City Artists ImpressionThe rapid urbanisation of China has thrown into stark relief many of the challenges the construction industry faces around the globe: Cost and time overruns, waste, under performing assets and high CO2 emissions.  Zhang Yue, Chairman of the Chinese engineering and construction company Broad Group thinks he has the answer to this – combining modern methods to revolutionise construction and deliver quality, sustainable and rapidly deployed buildings.

Offsite manufacturing and modular construction are not new concepts, and have been used to leverage some of the benefits enjoyed by the manufacturing industry such as automation and economies of scale.   In China the Broad Group have already built an entire planned community of modular buildings in addition to putting up a 204m skyscraper in just 19 days.  With plans to build ‘Sky City’, the world’s tallest skyscraper using offsite manufactured modules, Zhang Yue and his company certainly believe it is a way to revolutionise construction.

 

Challenges of offsite construction

 There are a number of potential barriers to implementing modular building on a large scale.  However if these can be overcome they  represent significant benefits for both builders and users of the built environment.

 

  1. Standardisation

Currently the vast majority of buildings, certainly outside the residential sector, are bespoke.  To quote a comment from a recent Constructing Excellence event, ‘Every building we build is a prototype’.  This is a major obstacle for offsite manufacturing where standardisation is key, the capital cost that would be involved with configuring a production line differently for each project would not be viable.

The assets built by the Broad Group have a high degree of standardisation to the point that some of the more advanced modules are manufactured complete with internal infrastructure such as power and water which are then simply joined up.  This standardisation reduces the complexity of operation and maintenance as procedures, components and specifications will be the same across a whole range of assets.

 

  1. Variety

If a high degree of standardisation is required surely our built environment will become uniform, unattractive and unable to meet the bespoke needs of its occupiers?

The answer to this is modular buildings that can be constructed in a large number of configurations from standard components to suit different uses.  This is already a principle used in the automotive industry where several different models of car will share the same chassis and to a more extreme degree in defence, where vehicles with vastly different roles and capabilities are developed from the same basic configuration.

 

  1. Offsite ManafacturingQuality

Quality of production has been raised as a barrier to offsite manufacturing. In a modular building, especially one with inbuilt internal infrastructure an error of a few millimetres could be disastrous.

However Zhang Yue argues that this is less of an issue for offsite manufacturing than it is for traditional onsite construction.  Offsite manufacturing involves a high degree of automation and repeatability leading to high levels of precision whilst onsite construction relies on the skills of the workforce leaving room for human error.  This is particularly relevant in markets suffering from a skills shortage as the use of offsite manufacturing shifts the type of skills and distribution of skills to different parts of the construction process.

 

  1. Design

With a traditional construction project, design can be modified as the project progresses to overcome unforeseen problems and changing requirements, something that is impossible with prefabricated buildings.

The answer, proponents of modular building would say is simple, design it right first time by collaborating with all stakeholders at the very start of the process and using digital modelling (a la BIM).  The argument is that the adaptability of traditional onsite construction allows for too much change after the initial design process and this is what causes delay and underperformance of finished assets.

 

  1. Operation

Modular construction goes hand in hand with the ‘build it digitally, then build it physically’ approach of BIM.  An approach that has been employed, so far successfully by the Broad Group in China.  The high degree of standardisation involved also partners well with BIM where object libraries can be created for all the components of a module, providing the asset operator with all the information they need.

 

So will we be seeing more modular buildings?

The potential benefits are clear, assets that are quicker and cheaper to build,   and easier and more sustainable to operate and maintain.  The main obstacles are likely to be aesthetic (do we want lots of clone buildings?) and cultural/economic (upheaval of the labour market, need for increased standardisation between contractors and suppliers).

 

The answer has to lie with the construction industry’s clients.  If enough developers and asset owners see value in modular construction then a critical mass will be achieved where it is viable for companies to invest in the required manufacturing capabilities.

There will always be a need for bespoke buildings but in areas such as retail, commercial property, education, health and residential there is a strong argument that offsite, modular construction can revolutionise the construction industry as well as our built environment.

You can read more about Sky City in this BBC feature

About the author

Michelle Mason

Michelle Mason leads the UK and MEAP Marketing team, with far too many years in B2B marketing to mention. A CONJECT newbie, Michelle is eagerly climbing a steep learning curve.

View my LinkedIn profile:
http://uk.linkedin.com/in/michellemason04

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