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Changing with the times - modular construction

Can modularization and prefabrication learn from the electric car industry and create a spark in the construction world?

The construction and motor vehicle industries have aged and evolved over the last century. Both industries may be on the verge of dramatic shifts that could change consumer perception and open the door for new industry moguls. Electric car manufacturing has made great progress over the last decade taking advantage of the rising oil prices and environmental concerns to carve out a place in the current market. Commercial prefabrication and modularization may not be too far behind offering economic and environmental benefits unmatched by traditional construction. Neither possess more than one percent of their respective markets but both have made progress recently demonstrating their potential to become industry standards in the future.

An emerging market: offsite construction

Modular construction predates the 1920’s when a customer could flip open Sears Roebuck catalog and order a home for delivery. By following the steps taken by the electric car industry to alter consumer perception, take advantage of the green movement, and benefit from advancements in technology, prefabricated building materials have an opportunity to gain traction in a market where some have begun to accept permanent modular construction as a viable alternative to traditional, stick built construction.

Prefabrication and modularization are not new terms in the construction industry and this could be one of the reasons for its inability to grow in the commercial building industry. The terms have been used for over 100 years but little innovation in the manufacturing and construction process has kept large scale modularization on the sidelines. In order to change consumer perception, a continued effort from those with prefabrication experience (including end users, architects, construction managers, contractors) must continue to produce evidence that supports the belief that a building constructed using modular construction is of the same quality or better than traditional stick built construction.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by McGraw Hill, 84% of contractors, 90% of engineers, and 76% of architects use prefabrication or modularization on some projects. Despite these inspiring numbers, offsite construction typically makes up only a small part of the overall construction work.

With the emergence of the USGBC and LEED construction ratings, environmentally conscious construction is a practice that will continue to be encouraged and reward those who undertake the practices. In a 2011 McGraw Hill survey of end users, contractors and architects, 76% of respondents felt that prefabricated/modular construction reduces site waste while 62% of the same group believed that these processes reduce the amount of material used. Offsite construction has a number of environmental benefits recognized by the LEED rating system. Sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, these are just a few of the credits that can be achieved taking advantage of modular construction.

Modular construction still has room for improvement in the area of developing new technology. Recently, an increased usage of BIM and other forms of computer aided design has provided a competitive advantage in the market. Incorporating BIM into the design and construction process decreases modelling/drawing time while increasing the quality of the model using 3-d renderings. This information can be communicated through the program to the construction team as they construct each phase of the modules.

Without a large demand for prefabrication and modularization, the development of technology has suffered. Machines are used to build the prefabricated parts but without the need for complete mass customization, assembly still requires manual labor. Researchers have noted that until the modularization and prefabrication process becomes fully automated, the cost savings on large construction projects is not significant enough to alter many who continue to use traditional onsite construction methods.

Necessities for an increase in industry adoption of permanent modular construction

  • Increased marketing and awareness – Associations like the Modular Building Institute (MBI) must continue to educate to increase awareness of the benefits and show potential users and designers that prefabricated materials obtain the same qualities as on-site materials used

  • Further developments of BIM objects by modular manufacturers making it easier for architects to specify products

  • Focus on the benefits of extensive preplanning and an integrated project delivery system; many users of IPD are strong advocators to the process and modular construction provides the opportunity for continued use

  • Improvements made with the delivery process of modules/prefabricated materials to reduce the cost of transportation to the job site

  • Usage of high quality interior and exterior products to provide a “wow” factor for those who use the buildings

Electric vehicles road to redemption

While we think of electric cars as a new and innovative idea, the first rechargeable electric car was invented in 1859 with the invention of the first lead-acid battery. After seeing some success at the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles were unable to evolve as quickly as gasoline operated vehicles did to meet the demands of the market. As road systems became more developed, consumers wanted to travel longer distances at faster rates than electric cars permitted. The discovery of petroleum reserves across the globe reduced the price of gas thus reducing the expense of long distance travel. Meanwhile, advancements in gasoline vehicle design (electric starter, muffler) eliminated many of the issues customers had with gasoline powered vehicles. More importantly, with Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line, gasoline powered vehicles could now be manufactured quicker and sold for half of the price of electric cars.

Electric cars were all but extinct in the US for the next 75 years until market conditions demanded an alternative to gasoline powered vehicles. A barrel of crude oil in 2003 cost under $25/barrel for the US, by July of 2008 a barrel of crude oil peaked at $147.30. It was during this time that the demand for hybrid and electric cars jumped.

The issues that had halted manufacturing advancements in the past still needed to be addressed. Tesla* was able to meet consumer demands, apply new technology, and present an environmentally conscious design to alter the perception of electric cars to consumers and drastically modernize the motor vehicle industry as we know it today. Utilizing new lithium battery technology, providing consumers with a more affordable, sleek design, along with the ability to travel at high rates of speed on highways for over 200 miles per charge peaked consumer interest when Tesla’s Model S was released in 2012. Sales of Tesla’s first electric vehicle, the Roadster, reached 2,500 units between 2008 and 2012; from 2012 to 2013 over 25,000 Model S vehicles were sold.

Tesla and the electric car industry still have work to do to if they want to increase their market share. Battery life has made great strides over the past ten years but is the major reason for the current escalated price point. Discovering ways to manufacture batteries that last longer but are cheaper to manufacture could be the key to seeing a great jump in sales.  (*There are other successful electric car manufacturers but selected Tesla as their product has best met consumer demands)


What can be learned

The electric car industry was resurrected with the introduction of lithium ion batteries. This paired with the environmental impacts of gas powered vehicles and the commitment of certain car manufacturers to offer a product that met consumer expectations has impacted, and will continue to impact, the automobile industry for the next 100 years.

Technology in modular construction has been slowly developing in recent years but there is plenty of room for improvement. Until the industry presents a true competitive advantage to traditional stick built construction, end users, architects, and construction teams will continue to use what has worked for them in the past.

Modular builders must continue to invest in R&D to discover new manufacturing processes. New technology that will cut costs in the manufacturing and transportation of these buildings should provide the industry with enough cost savings to start turning more heads within the industry. 

We are starting to see examples of large construction projects relying heavily on offsite construction with a positive environmental impact as well as significant time savings. These benefits must continue to be communicated to influencers and customers. Aside from communicating verbally and through educational courses, another way of reaching customers could be to let the public know which buildings are using prefabricated or modular building materials by putting it on display “this building was built using prefabricated building materials.”

Information sources

  • Bernstein, Harvey M., John E. Gudgel, and Donna Laquidara-Carr. "Prefabrication and Modularization." Prefabrication and Modularization (2011): n. pag. McGraw Hill. McGraw Hill, 2011. Web. 15 July 2014.
  • "History of the Electric Vehicle." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 July 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.
  • Klippenstein, Matthew. "Electric-Car Market Share In 2013: Understanding The Numbers Better." Green Car Reports. Green Car Reports, 11 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 July 2014.
  • Schoenborn, Copyright 2012 Joseph. (n.d.): n. pag. Modular Building Institute. MBI, 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 July 2014.
Posted: 8/22/2014 7:18:43 PM by Lea Charnley | with 0 comments
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