Is modular the answer for your project?
In the drive to fully integrate modular techniques in the UK construction industry, are we losing sight of objective and considered decision making? We explore how traditional builds stack up against modular options and suggests how developers and project leaders might go about weighing up the possibilities.
The answer to our prayers?
Modular is great – no doubt about it. What’s not to like about faster, smarter projects with high quality results and the enticing possibility of an answer to the UK’s housing crisis? Modular construction is in the public eye and rapidly growing in popularity, with one of the tallest modular projects in the world currently shooting up in Croydon.
Understandably then, developers are seeking more and more frequently to incorporate these methods into their projects. But is that always wise? Often the biggest factor in adopting a modular approach is a belief that it will save time, and therefore money. This is often true, but – crucially – not always. The question is – how do you decide?
A renewed appetite for modular
Falling under the umbrella of ‘Modern Methods of Construction’ (MMC), modular construction is just one of a host of techniques which offer fast, economical results. The notorious pre-fab houses that sprang up in the aftermath of the Second World War are an early example. Today MMC includes several approaches to manufacturing parts of a structure or even entire structures in off-site factories before assembly happens on-site. This ranges from individual components such as façade panels, kitchen or bathroom units, right up to entire buildings assembled from a kit of parts, such as pop-up restaurants or student living blocks.
Use of MMC has been gaining momentum for a while in the UK but recently there has been a noticeable rise in interest. Commitment from politicians complements significant private investment by large developers and financial organisations. L&G has invested heavily in a Yorkshire factory, Goldman Sachs has put money into new modular manufacturer TopHat, Berkeley Homes has set up its own purpose built modular facility, and Reuben Brothers recently invested £19m into modular buildings specialist Project Etopia.
This is exciting news for the sector, but smaller developers, and those without their own specialist facilities available, have some big decisions on their hands…
How do I decide if modular will work for me?
1 Does a modular approach fit your project?
We’ve noticed a sharp rise in enthusiasm among developers for integrating modular techniques. But it’s still essential to assess whether it will help, rather than hinder, the project.
- — Is your project big enough, and does it feature enough repeated elements to make modular a cost-effective solution? The benefits of modular techniques vary with factors such as size of project, and whether it has features – such as repetition – that lend themselves to the approach.
- — It’s important to take funders’ and insurers’ circumstances into account. Do the requirements of all interested parties fit with a modular approach?
- — Do your design and construction teams have the necessary expertise, experience and appetite for integrating and delivering modular solutions to necessary standards and within required time frames?
2 Evaluate the opportunities and consider risk
If you have decided that modular techniques may be a good fit, it’s time to weigh up whether they will save enough time and money to justify the decision, and whether the risks are acceptable.
- — From the ground up, construction can be much faster in a modular project, but the design and manufacture phases of the programme can be lengthy, meaning the time and cost saving may not be so significant as expected.
- — When it comes to costing a modular option, many factors may not be obvious. For an accurate view in contrast to a traditional option, a comparison should include prototyping, testing, transportation, unloading, positioning, fixing, protection, design, warranties and any early financing costs associated with modular.
- — Supply chain considerations are paramount. There are comparatively few suppliers and manufacturers, which means there is limited competition and market capacity. This can drive prices up and increase lead times. Ask yourself – is there availability in the market to meet your programme’s requirements? And can the available suppliers deliver the quality your project needs?
- — The management abilities and financial strength of suppliers are also relevant. Some recently formed manufacturers who have sprung up to meet demand may lack the reliability of established, traditional suppliers and contractors, bringing an extra element of risk.
— How innovative is the modular solution you are considering? If the approach is not tried and tested, consider whether you are prepared to be a guinea pig with the associated risks that may bring.
- — Once manufacture has started it may be difficult and expensive to make changes – this should be factored in to your decision making and project planning.
- — It can be more difficult to convert modular builds for a different use a few years down the line. If there is a need to build in future flexibility, this should be carefully considered at the design stage.
- — Don’t forget to factor in the cost and approach for future maintenance of a modular building, or after sales considerations. These can be very different in comparison to traditional builds.
3 Integrating and implementing modular into your project
If everything is lining up to make modular the right choice for you, well-planned integration and implementation is the final piece of the puzzle.
- — Early commitment to a modular approach is important. Designs need to be progressed and finalised, and modular suppliers may need to be procured early – often during the pre-construction phase. This enables the chosen modular manufacturer to integrate their aspects of the design successfully. For this reason, earlier cashflow and contractual commitment is often required when compared to traditional builds.
- — As with any project, excellent design coordination and efficient communication between stakeholders throughout a project is key to successful delivery. In modular builds, it’s particularly important because of the high levels of precision required for successful assembly.
- — For smooth integration of modular techniques, the entire delivery programme should be developed specifically with modular in mind – a more traditional design and build programme probably will not work. For example, suppliers may need to be appointed before a construction contract is in place, because they often have some design responsibility.
- — Successful modular projects can depend on appropriate prototyping and testing regimes for the various components – both off-site and on-site. Components need to be reliable and durable – will they work on day one? Will they stand the test of time and allow the building to reach its planned lifespan?
- — Arrangements onsite need to be precise and easy to follow. Who is responsible for offloading modules? How are they installed? When are they due? How are they protected? All these questions need answers before work begins.
“Early commitment to modular is key…
Decision making in action
Recently, we compared a set of proposals for a residential project, three of which were from modular firms and three of which were from traditional firms. A detailed analysis revealed that the traditional options were, on average, marginally cheaper than the modular options. Furthermore, the modular programmes, while seemingly shorter, referred only to build time and did not account for upfront design. When this was factored in, the overall project delivery time was longer with the modular approach. This result would not be the same for all projects, but it demonstrates the importance of looking at a project in detail and on its own merits, considering all relevant factors, to ensure the best approach is chosen for the particular circumstances. On this occasion, that was a traditional approach.
Modular construction techniques can offer an exciting and proven way of speeding up projects without compromising on quality. We should be cautious before assuming that the benefits apply in all circumstances, but choosing between modular and traditional approaches doesn’t have to be difficult.
Thorough, thoughtful cost and procurement management is key to singling out the best approach for a project and at Equals we can lead and advise in identifying the route that will lead to the best results in the circumstances – whether that means traditional build, MMC or something in between.