Construction’s Modular Future

Factors driving the popularity of modular construction techniques

If you're in the construction marketplace as a designer, construction manager, or material supplier, you already know the industry is moving toward a new normal. After many years of stagnant productivity growth in the construction industry, improved productivity is now the focus of many industry initiatives to grow competitiveness and profitability.

Several forces are contributing to the need for change in the traditional construction approach. Companies in nearly every corner of the construction market are working to capture every opportunity from a strong economy and years of pent-up building demand. New design and construction technologies, in the hands of innovative professionals, are revolutionizing what is possible in moving structures digitally from schematic to completion.

Unemployment is at record lows, a reality that's amplified in the construction community where experienced workers have left the industry at several times the rate new workers have been attracted. Construction market training methods and curriculum must also keep pace with the immediate needs of employers and the reality of today's recruitment, retention, and technology integration challenges. Add to these factors, the seasonal and space limitations inherent in the typical construction job site. General contractors are all too familiar with the safety, cost, and schedule implications, weather delays, material staging, and concurrent work.

It's a lot to contend with, and modular construction techniques may offer desirable options.

Modular construction leverages the advantages of manufacturing in a controlled environment.

Imagine the construction of a simplified concrete structural frame on site, ready to accept just-in-time delivery of plug-in or stacked modules that incorporate much more complex HVAC, fixtures, furnishings and finishes historically accomplished at the job site. It's happening right now in healthcare and hospitality markets with typical needs for much of the building's occupied spaces. Marriott International is currently building what will be the world's tallest modular hotel, a 360-foot-tall tower, consisting of modules stacked over 90 days. Scheduled to open in 2020 as the AC Hotel New York NoMad, Marriott's latest use of modular construction is a game-changer.

Hospitals provide another industry-leading opportunity. EIR Healthcare introduced a prefabricated hospital room in 2018 it calls MedModular, which can be built in 30 days - much faster and cheaper than traditional hospital rooms. EIR suggests their prefabricated rooms can fill a 300-bed space in 10-20% less time than is currently feasible. This efficiency can mean a difference of two or three years in some cases. EIR's technology eliminates the need to build rooms on-site, so the company can start production in its factory as soon as contractors get to work building a hospital.

There are many more examples, all made practical by considerable advances in design and construction technology, including design modeling, laser positioning, and precise manufacturing robotics.

What is your opportunity to take advantage of this significant trend?

While much of traditional construction means and methods will not soon change, there is a growing demand for connecting prefabricated assemblies rather than building all aspects of the building from scratch on site. Modular construction is already growing beyond hotels and hospitals. Schools, offices, MOBs, condominiums, laboratories, and public safety facilities are open opportunities as well.  This list of new marketing channels for current building products will continue to expand.

Rather than being constrained by a traditional approach, forward-thinking companies are looking at how their products and processes can adapt to serve a growing modular marketplace. For instance, many traditional reinforcing steel fabricators now prefabricate assemblies, sheets, or cages that can be timely delivered to a production facility or job site and dropped into forms for inspection and concrete placement. This process offers a systematic solution that, in many cases, moves a time-consuming process to a more controlled and productive environment.

  • Building material R&D partnerships with modular system manufacturers offer promise as both need to ensure they can deliver competitive solutions as the market for modular continues to expand.

  • Manufacturing equipment producers are eager to introduce technologies with proven performance track-records and how they can be used or adapted for new applications in prefabrication plants and the job site.

  • Owners, designers, builders, and material suppliers that embrace the modular trend early by contributing to it will be the clear beneficiaries as this market grows.