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The future is modular

The future is modular

The future is modular

Gavin Hughes highlights the benefits of modular constructions and looks at its future.

Construction today is a modern, technologically advanced industry. It uses integrated 3D computer models (BIM), satellite setting out and materials which comprehensively outperform their historical equivalents. It employs one of the most highly trained skilled workforces in the UK and is more focused on producing cost-effective, safer, warmer, longer-lasting, sustainable homes for the public than ever before.

In part, this desire stems from the need to innovate and improve construction methods in response to the ever-changing demands of modern society. Modular construction and its increased development and usage in the UK looks set to form a part of the next wave of innovative development in the construction industry.

Modular construction is not new, it has been around for over 100 years. In simple terms, modular buildings are constructed off-site in factories to meet or exceed building standards at a lower cost than more traditional construction methods. They are then transported to site and assembled, thereby reducing overall construction time. Early historical examples include “Bailey Bridges”, a Second World War invention by the British military, the post-war prefabricated houses and bathroom pods that were provided to those made homeless by the war.

However, it is the phase of complete building modularisation that is the exciting next step. Complete buildings of hundreds of apartments or entire housing estates are being assembled in factories and then erected in a drastically reduced time period compared to traditional building methods.

Modular construction takes factory-based assembly line systems used in manufacturing and car making and applies them to construction. A typical building is broken down into a number of repetitive boxes (bedrooms, halls, kitchens, etc) that can be constructed as standalone items within their own box frame. Skilled workers in a safe, comfortable work environment then assemble these units. They are then shipped to sites all over the UK and assembled to form new homes.


In all construction projects time is the critical factor. It is the one resource that cannot be renewed. By adopting modular construction on a project, an employer typically saves 10%-20% of their overall project programme. This reduces borrowing times, overheads and pressure on resources. Modular construction is also independent of weather and the challenges posed working on site (damage to building materials for example).

Factory assembly also allows greater purchasing power, thereby creating greater cost efficiencies. Instead of negotiating a small saving per unit for bulk buying 100 washing machines, there can be a much larger unit saving if the bulk purchase is for 10,000 washing machines.

Space saving is a knock-on benefit from repetitive designs. The space for MEP services for bathrooms and kitchens in most buildings is larger than required for their operation. The additional space is usually required for their assembly during construction where man-handling pipes, etc into place requires extra room. In modular construction the factory assembly process allows these services to be fully pre-planned and assembled in sequence to maximise space saving.


Our industry is wide ranging and diverse. We deal with state-of-the-art hospitals, airports, and data centres, all of which require high building standards and limiting service requirements, while at the same time our industry also builds farmyard barns and sheds, which are very basic structures.

As a result, there are large areas where modular construction could play a leading role. Typically, buildings where design repetition can be maximised in fields with strong demand such as housing, prisons or schools are areas that offer great opportunities for its use.

In addition, there are boutique areas such as hospital operating rooms or hotel bedrooms that also offer good markets. These areas have their own time limitations, site access requirements or have highly specialised requirements that mean modular solutions are the best solutions.


This is a new area in our industry and there are barriers. Key barriers in achieving and expanding this area are:

  • Public perception
  • High start-up costs
  • Generating long term orders

The general public is conservative and slow to respond to new building opportunities. Modular construction has not yet established a strong reputation with their new homes for quality and safety. As a result, demand for these types of homes has yet to be fully appreciated by the public.

There are also high costs initially as an entrepreneur must purchase a factory, equip the factory, purchase raw materials and employ highly skilled staff before they can start to make any units. This means they will have significant start-up costs and need to spread these costs as part of their production cost for their units over a number of years before they can generate profit.

Managing and generating long term orders is key to operating an assembly line. This allows for planning of costs and generation of savings. However, as the industry is new and construction demand varies, the ability to secure long term customers is key.

Process to a Modular Development

  • Consider modularisation from Stage 1 RIBA
  • Get early involvement from a modular manufacturer
  • Fix client requirements before tender
  • Understand and share design rules for development “Playbook Rules”
  • Award contract to modular manufacturer
  • Manage two project programmes:
    • a) Manufacturing delivery programme
    • b) Onsite construction (drains, roads, landscaping etc)
  • Award roles and responsibilities for other construction professionals – Principal Contractor, Architect, and Engineer
  • Project manage
  • Quality check the deliverables are met

Legal Contracts

There is no standard modular construction contract form in the industry. Generally, there are modified JCT forms of contract or specific manufacturer contracts being used. These contracts cover payment schedules, warranties and programme delivery. There are significant gaps in these forms on claim dispute management, bonds, valuation, notification, practical completion definition, Arbitration, and how to manage the contract.

As the industry grows it will develop a standard contract type with industry knowledge of how to manage the contract. However, at this point a legal firm should be involved in the contract negotiation. This will ensure the contract not only deals with penalties and liability for works, but also how the contract should be managed and the duties and responsibilities of all the construction team.


There are clear indicators that the future of Modular Construction is strong: 

  • Government action
  • Public perception
  • Industry growth

The Home Office has, over the last twenty years and under different administrations, promoted and encouraged “Industrialisation of the Construction Industry”. It is clear that they would lead and publicly support modularisation.

The general public has clearly indicated over the last number of years that they would support a solution to the housing market that can demonstrate sustainability, high quality build and cost-effective homes. Modular can deliver all of these.

As modular manufacturers grow, they will reinvest into their industry, leading to greater efficiencies, sustainability, and savings in their manufacturing processes. This will enable them to provide greater quality products with greater adaptability.

Americas  /  Articles  /  Asia Pacific  /  Europe  /  Global  /  Middle East

Americas  /  Articles  /  Asia Pacific  /  Europe  /  Global  /  Middle East

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