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Inside Innovation: Hurdles remain for modular construction

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Hurdles remain for modular construction

Who would doubt the exciting prospects for prefabrication and modular assembly processes in construction? After all, modularization has long enjoyed a strong base of support among those engaged in multi-family housing.

In a recent construction industry survey, 90 per cent of housing contractors claim improved productivity and quality, and increased schedule certainty. More than 80 per cent experience improved cost predictability, reduced waste and increased client satisfaction.

The survey also points to an increased endorsement of off-site construction by contractors and trades for health care facilities, hotels and college accommodation projects. The drivers behind their enthusiasm centre on shorter project schedules, smaller required workforces, and efficiencies available through technology like Building Information Modeling (BIM).

These potential cost and efficiency benefits are confirmed by a 2019 McKinsey report titled Modular construction: From projects to products. “Modular construction can speed construction by as much as 50 per cent. In the right environment and trades-offs, it can cut costs by 20 per cent.”

As promising as this might appear, however, modularization’s acceptance is not universal across all building sectors. Interestingly, resistance to modularization beyond its current base of popularity often lies among those involved at the very outset, namely owners and architects. Since owners initiate projects and are responsible for funding, their support is critical. As Laurie Robert, president of NRB Inc. of Grimsby, Ont. recently said, if a build is going to be modular, it has to be modular before shovels hit the dirt.

Architects and engineers, like owners, also tend to limit their enthusiasm for modularization to multi-family projects. “The different components used for constructing a building are entangled — they all depend on each other — and many of the parameters that go into constructing a building are subjective and depend on the customer’s demands and wishes,” say lead engineers from Danish company DTU Management Engineering/ NCC Construction. They add that since owners and architects share a desire for their buildings to be individual, they “often have a lot of subjective demands regarding other aspects, especially the architectural aspects such as the geometric shape, the perceived facade expression, or the look of the building.”

As a result, modularization cannot yet be termed disruptive across all industry sectors. In fact, the Modular Building Institute says that commercial modular building accounts for only four per cent of current work.

Continued adoption of BIM technology is seen as a motivating factor that could spur increased off-site prefabrication and modularization in the future. “The onsite construction work involved in a modular approach…essentially boils down to assembling 3-D modules on site and connecting services to the main site connections,” says the McKinsey report. In that way, both BIM design technology and on-site execution are similar.

Whether off-site fabrication involves simple floor and wall assemblies or volumetric rooms and fully serviced units, the benefits will become increasingly compelling: controlled factory environments, improved worker safety, reductions in waste, less site disturbance, and predictable costs and schedules.

These advantages must be weighed against factors such as logistics. As McKinsey writes, “In the world of modular construction, coordination and delivery of modules to the site is critical — especially when large 3-D units must be moved. Builders have to ensure that the productivity gains outweigh this cost, carefully weighing wage differentials between the manufacturing facility and the product’s end destination, as well as the distance involved in delivery.”

There are also economies of scale to be considered. Factory fabrication of building componentry is not the same as car production. McKinsey explains that the growth of modularization “requires large-enough factories as well as sufficient output to ensure repeatability, learning, and volume savings on procurement.”

The McKinsey report concludes by urging industry players to take heed. “After decades of relatively slow change, an at-scale shift to modularization — alongside digitization — looks likely to disrupt the construction industry and broader ecosystem. All players should evaluate the trend and impact, and assess their strategic choices, to ensure they can benefit rather than risking being left behind.”


John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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