Caroline Hanratty

Time for modular construction to come into its own

The current pandemic certainly isn’t helping with the UK’s housing shortage. Housebuilders may be going back on site but do we need to move away from the more traditional methods of construction if we are going to have any chance of meeting the country’s housebuilding targets, asks Caroline Hanratty.

Modular construction is a form of off-site construction where a building’s components are built in a factory before being assembled on site. The benefits of modular include:

  • fewer people are needed on site at the same time
  • shorter building programmes – the construction of modular buildings occurs simultaneously with site work, allowing some projects to be completed in half the time of traditional construction
  • the project is less impacted by weather or labour shortages
  • the product is factory built so quality control is improved
  • safety – the indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.

Modular building became popular after the Second World War when there was a need for the rapid construction of buildings to replace bomb-damaged buildings and to accommodate returning troops.  Although initially well-received, they often remained in use well beyond their design life and were often less attractive than traditional buildings.  “Prefab” became a bit of a dirty word.

So might we start to see more modular construction now? According to a recent report by Savills, the UK is expected to see the strongest growth in modern methods of construction in Europe in the coming years, driven by:

  • an aging construction workforce
  • the need for housing delivery to increase by 24% to meet current needs
  • the need to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of housing and house building

Factory built means waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory and protecting building materials.

Modular buildings can also be repurposed with modules being relocated or refurbished, reducing the demand for raw materials and the amount of energy used to create a building.

Modular has a much wider application than housing though. Removing most of the construction activity from the site significantly reduces the period of site disruption, reduces traffic, and improves safety and security. This has huge benefits for education and healthcare projects.

The benefits of modular were demonstrated recently by the delivery of 2,400 beds in two field hospitals in Wuhan, China, in just 12 days. Now that they are no longer needed, perhaps they can be relocated to where there is a current need.  Traditional construction methods would not have delivered such projects in anything like that timescale or be capable of being easily repurposed.

Caroline Hanratty is real estate partner at Mills & Reeve.

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