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The History and Future of Modular Construction


Modular construction may seem like a new building method, yet it has been around for nearly two centuries. This process of constructing structures offsite, then transporting and assembling them in half the time as traditional techniques has undergone an extraordinary transformation since the 1830s and has blossomed into one of today's leading construction approaches. Here's a brief history of modular construction to help better understand its current rise in popularity, application, and methods. 

How exactly did modular construction begin?

This useful timeline outlines significant benchmarks in the history of modular construction, from its revolutionary beginnings to its modern-day applications:

1830s 

The first documented prefabricated home was created by London carpenter John Manning for his son, who was moving from England to Australia. Manning built a prefabricated house in pieces, then shipped it to the "Land Down Under" for easy assembly.

1840s 

Modular construction made its way to the United States in response to the housing needs of the California Gold Rush.

1851

The "Crystal Palace" was built for Britain's Great Exhibition, and remains one of the most famous examples of early modular construction. Designed in less than two weeks, it utilized light and inexpensive materials such as iron, wood, and glass; it was constructed in only a few months. Afterward, the palace was dismantled, moved, and rebuilt at another location.

1900s 

Augustine Taylor, a builder in Chicago, devised the balloon-frame method, enabling walls to be built offsite, then transported to the intended construction site, for speedy assembly.

The Rise of Catalog Houses

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck and Co. sold more than 500,000 prefab homes through its catalog, straight to consumers. At the time, these houses cost less than two-thirds of conventionally built homes, and many still exist throughout the United States.

WWII Housing Boom

Prefab structures continued into World War Two, to meet the growing demand for mass accommodations for military personnel. So-called "Quonset Huts," or "Nissen Huts" in the U.K., comprised of corrugated steel, were introduced for domestic, military, and institutional uses.

Following the war, as soldiers began returning home, the United States experienced a severe housing shortage. There was a need for rapid construction for new homes to accommodate these expanding families. Once again, modular construction serviced those needs because of its efficiency, reduced costs, and quick construction. Today, many of those units are still in use. 

Postwar Europe and Japan also utilized the prefab process in response to their own housing and rebuilding demands.

Modularization Today

Countries around the world have enlisted CRE prefab and modular construction methods for decades. 

For example, an estimate of all detached homes that are prefabricated in each country shows a potential for growth:

  • 84% in Sweden
  • 5% in the United States
  • 9% in Germany
  • 20% in the Netherlands
  • 28% in Japan

Since its introduction stateside, the approach has undergone significant technological innovations, including advances in associated software, automation, and building information modeling. All of this, plus new processes and materials, have made it possible to prefabricate and deliver more sophisticated, complex, and aesthetically pleasing buildings than ever before.

As demand began to exceed the supply of existing buildings in the 1970s, commercial applications arose, with additional breakthroughs throughout the 2000s.

Today, prefabrication and modularization are utilized in the construction of hotels, apartment buildings, offices, hospitals, and schools in every major U.S. city.

Here's a rundown of the percentage per industry of prefabricated structures that use some form of modular construction:  

  • 49% of healthcare facilities
  • 42% of college buildings and dorms
  • And 42% of manufacturing buildings 

As opposed to traditional construction methods, modular construction is a much faster process that can drastically reduce the possibility of going over-budget and outside of scope. Because modular construction starts in a controlled environment offsite, this aids in the avoidance of the normal snares found in conventional construction methods such as severe weather, which can increase the likelihood of going over budget and outside of scope. 

Modular construction can reduce the uncertainty of scheduling issues and labor deficits—the result of which means that there is less of a chance for a delay. This is partly due to the construction industry’s dwindling workforce. A modular building firm will regularly employ a team of full-time workers in the production facility to address all required offsite manufacturing and construction of the modular units. 

A consistent labor force can make modular construction more efficient and less costly.

Over the years, modular construction has demonstrated its potential for positively impacting building projects, including cutting 35% of businesses' schedules by a month. Modular construction can:

  • Reduce construction waste by 77%
  • Reduce the cost of a project by 65% 

Large construction projects often run up to four-fifths over budget and can take about one-fifth longer to complete than estimated. The utilization of modular building methods can improve the budget of a construction project since the method is quicker than traditional approaches. 

Modular construction is gaining in global popularity, with more and more builders and developers recognizing its utility, productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

The Future of Modular 

According to a recent survey, there is anticipated growth in the modular construction industry in the next few years. The market is projected to increase from $92.18 billion in 2018 to $130 billion in 2030. This is due, in part, to the increase in demand for rapid and affordable construction in a number of major industries such as hospitals, schools, and hospitality. 

For example, in the UK in 2017, the utilization of modular methods in building practices has increased by 6%. This rapid growth is likely due to modular construction not requiring as much onsite space—in countries where space is limited, this is a fundamental necessity. Other cities across the world are starting to do the same, as cities become denser and more populated.

Conklin Hall at Dutchess Community College is a prime example of how modular construction methods can build a large construction project on budget, on time, and in a limited space. 

Modular construction may date back some two centuries ago, but its processes and applications are always looking to tomorrow.

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