“Cheap.” “Flimsy.” “Poor construction.” “Trailers.” Those are some of the derogatory terms that manufacturers of modular buildings hear from the public—and even from code officials.
The ironic thing is that today's modular construction is anything but flimsy or poorly constructed. A study by the National Research Council for the National Institute of Standards & Technology praised prefabrication, preassembly, modularization, and off-site fabrication for improving labor productivity by 30% on 100 specific construction-related tasks.
The NRC report (“Advancing the Competitiveness and Efficiency of the U.S. Construction Industry”) went on to list several other advantages of modular construction:
Compressed project schedules resulting from changes in the sequence of work flow.
Fewer conflicts in work crew scheduling and better sequencing of craft trades.
Less need for on-site materials storage.
More controlled conditions for weather, quality control, labor supervision, plus fewer deliveries of materials.
Fewer job-site environmental impacts due to material waste, air and water pollution, dust, noise, and energy costs.
Sounds heavenly, doesn't it? Then why so little penetration of prefabricated units and components in U.S. commercial building projects?
That was the question I put to a panel of experts I moderated at the recent Modular Building Institute conference in Orlando, Fla. They were: Mohamed Al-Hussain, PhD, PEng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta's Hole School of Construction; Jon Sader, construction director for the Make It Right Foundation, actor Brad Pitt's program to build sustainably designed homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; and architect Kelsey Mullen, LEED AP, the U.S. Green Building Council's director of residential business development.
“You're dealing with building departments that have preconceived notions left over from the 1960s, and the negative effect of rogue manufacturers that are providing flimsy structures,” said Sader, a third-generation Michigan contractor, who has built 26 LEED Platinum homes.
The panel (with help from audience members) came up with six action items for the modular industry to undertake:
Empower champions. That's how the USGBC became a force in green building in the last decade, said Mullen.
Publicize modular through case studies of successful projects. Mullen cited the USGBC's LEED program is a model of how to educate public officials and thought leaders.
Promote the environmental and worker health benefits of modular construction. “Emphasize how the industry is reducing waste and carbon emissions and improving worker safety,” said Al-Hussain. “Prove those things, and you've got something to take to public agencies.”
Study manufacturing technology outside the U.S. and Canada. Believe it or not, Finland's modular sector has made some great technological advances. The panel recommended that MBI sponsor a trade visit to Finland and other European countries to learn from their experience.
Promote modular's fit with BIM. Prefab construction is a perfect vehicle for building information modeling, something that the NRC report touched on. Modular manufacturers need to get their BIM objects (i.e., their prefab units) included in building designers' BIM models.
Liaison more directly with the USGBC. MBI should “start a dialogue” with the USGBC and the Green Building Certification Institute, said Mullen. One audience member raised the point that modular construction is not given enough credit for waste reduction in LEED-NC for commercial projects. This is something the MBI and the green building programs should work out.