Box homes and buildings have been causing a lot of buzz lately and it’s all thanks to a clever construction method known as modular construction. But, this construction method isn’t exactly new. In fact, modular construction, has been around for decades. But why are the boxy, and frankly stuffy designs of the 70’s making a comeback? Prefabricated modular construction has advanced since the days of rusty shag rugs and designs have become increasingly efficient, cost effective, and even aesthetically pleasing. So, what is modular construction? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of “box homes“?
How does modular construction work?
Modular construction is a building process whereby a construction project is built in an off-site, controlled environment. The building is made in modules that can then be transported and put together on the permanent site of the building. Modular construction uses the same materials and follows all of the same codes and standards as typical construction projects – but in a factory setting.
A Brief History of Modular Construction
The birth of modular construction as we know it began in 1908, when Sears came out with its “Sears Modern Home Program.” Which was essentially a catalogue of pre-fabricated homes that you could order and set up yourself. Box homes became even more popular post-WWII, when veterans and their family’s needed affordable housing fast. In the 40’s and 50’s, entire neighborhoods of modular homes began to pop up. The 1970’s saw the biggest boom of modular constructed buildings. In fact, the method became so popular that many chose it over traditional construction.This is probably where modular buildings got their reputation for being low quality, mass produced boxes. But, today, box homes and buildings can appear elegant and modern. As technology has increased, modular construction methods and aesthetics have greatly advanced.
Types of Modular Construction
Permanent modular construction
Permanent modular construction uses offsite construction and lean manufacturing techniques to make modules that can then be converted into a permanent building. In other words, permanent modular construction is designed to be placed in one location and never moved for the lifetime of the building. Typically, permanent modular construction projects make buildings like residential homes, apartments, offices, accessory dwelling units and more.
Temporary/ Relocatable modular construction
Temporary or relocatable modular construction projects are built using offsite construction and lean manufacturing techniques to make modules that can be converted into a structure that can be moved from one location to another. Essentially, a temporary modular structure is made to be relocated, reused, or transported to different locations. These kinds of modular buildings work well with buildings meant to be used in schools, hospitals, construction site offices, sales centers and more. These buildings are especially useful in situations where a building needs to arrive quickly- like in emergency medical situations.
Advantages & disadvantages of modular construction
Faster to build
Modular construction has the unique advantage of being able to build the foundation and structure of the project simultaneously. On-site workers can prepare and lay the foundation for the building while off-site workers create the modules. This can save a lot of time , practically slashing the typical time it takes to make a building in half.
Controlled factory conditions
Controlled factory settings have a number of advantages. For one thing, weather delays will be practically non-existent. Furthermore, construction workers will have the comfort of perfectly controlled temperatures and terrain. Storage is also much easier in a factory setting, instead of paying for a storage unit or trying to squeeze all of your supplies into a crowded urban setting, everything can be stored in the factory. This has the additional benefit of preventing theft and damage to your materials.
It is estimated that typical modularly constructed buildings are 20-30% less expensive than their traditionally constructed counterparts. The speed, working conditions, and storage situation all add up to make modular building very cost effective. Of course, the materials you choose can make a big difference, but generally modular buildings are the more affordable option.
Reports show that modular construction methods can reduce construction waste by as much as 90%. This is hugely beneficial to the environment because construction waste accounts for over ⅓ of all waste in landfills. Additionally, many modular factories work to use recycled, recyclable, and sustainable materials for their modules.
High up-front cost
Because prefab modular structures can be built so quickly and simultaneously with other parts of the construction process, up front costs can be quite high. Instead of slowly purchasing materials and transportation, people and companies will have to purchase them all together almost immediately (unless of course the modular company has other financing options). This also requires a high degree of prep on the part of designers, engineers and schedulers who will have to get the schedule and cost estimates right very quickly.
Limited aesthetic variety
Although increasingly beautified versions of modular structures have been made, they still have that overall boxy, repetitive structure. For buildings like apartments and offices, this can be a great look. But, if you’re an architecture connoisseur, you might find the overall look of modular structures less creative or interesting than traditionally built structures (at least for now).
The initial stage is very complex
Modular designs require that much of the design and engineering be completed up-front. This can make the initial development stage very complex. Engineers need to be familiar with modular design and specifically the way that they must be connected. Additionally, modular designs often require buyers and designers to pick finishing, lighting, and appliances in advance of the project.
High transportations risks and cost
Since modules are created in factories that are often far away from the final building site, transportation risks and costs can be high. Also, because the modules are typically quite large, much care has to be taken in their transportation. Routes, roads, bridges, and traffic must be meticulously researched and planned to prevent delays or damage to the modules. Of course, this level of high-risk transportation can be quite costly (but this can be potentially offset by the aforementioned benefits).
There’s a lot to consider when choosing between traditional and modular buildings or “box homes.” Both don’t come without their benefits and risks. If you need a building constructed quickly, affordably, and potentially more sustainably, modular construction could be for you. On the other hand, if you’re wanting a creative, architecturally impressive structure- traditional construction is probably still the way to go.
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