As the spokesperson for the modular construction industry, I can tell you without question that the level of interest in modular (pre-fab, offsite) construction is at an all time high. In addition to the numerous calls and emails for information we receive, we are seeing more architects, engineers, developers and general contractors coming to our events to learn more about the modular construction process.
But the real sign that our market share is growing comes from a different source – the level of criticism coming from the “protect–the- status-quo” camp. I have seen more than a few online posts, editorials, and opinion pieces from individuals questioning the stated advantages of modular and offsite construction. So I’d like to take a moment to reply to those criticisms.
Let’s start with our industry campaign: “Changing the Way the World Builds: Greener, Faster, Smarter.” While not every modular project is going to be greener, faster, smarter than a comparable traditionally built structure, in general the modular construction process is greener, faster, smarter than the way buildings have been built for the last half a century.
We often cite a study by the National Institute for Standards and Technology from 2009 addressing worker productivity and efficiency in the construction industry. In that research, a committee of construction industry experts and heavyweights was assembled to “plan and conduct a workshop to identify and prioritize technologies, processes, and deployment activities that have the greatest potential to advance significantly the productivity and competitiveness of the capital facilities sector of the U.S. construction industry in the next 20 years”.
The committee defined productivity and efficiency as ways to cut waste in time, costs, materials, energy, skills, and labor. The committee believed that improving efficiency will also improve overall productivity and help individual construction firms produce more environmentally sustainable projects and become more competitive.
The committee was tasked to identify major breakthroughs that could have a positive impact on construction productivity over the next ten years. Among the five key findings were: “greater use of prefabrication, preassembly, modularization, and offsite fabrication techniques and processes”.
Why is this topic so important?
Studies focusing on construction efficiency, in contrast to productivity, have documented 25 to 50 percent waste in coordinating labor and in managing, moving, and installing materials (Tulacz and Armistead, 2007); losses of $15.6 billion per year due to the lack of interoperability (NIST, 2004); and transactional costs of $4 billion to $12 billion per year to resolve disputes and claims associated with construction projects (FFC, 2007). Studies of the construction industry over the past 30 years have documented a wide array of organizational issues, policies, and practices that result in inefficiencies and loss of productivity. In fact, construction industry labor productivity index has actually declined over the past forty years in contract to all other major U.S. industries.
McGraw Hill followed up on this research by conducting its own construction industry study on prefab and modular. Out of over 800 architecture, engineering and contracting (AEC) professionals replying to the survey:
•66% report that project schedules are decreased - 35% by four weeks or more
•65% report that project budgets are decreased - 41% by 6% or more
•77% report that construction site waste is decreased - 44% by 5% or more
Construction waste is a major contributor to our landfills. Each year, Americans legally dispose of millions of tons of construction and building material. Some critics contend that modular buildings are “over engineered” and use more materials to support transportation of the modules.
It is true that many modular projects contain more material than a comparable site built project. However, these “extra materials” enhance the durability, energy efficiency, and acoustic performance of buildings rather than ending up in our landfills, which we think is a far better solution.
A study conducted by Dr. Mohamed Al-Hussein at the University of Alberta’s Hole School of Engineering found that approximately 22% of the materials required for new construction and renovation becomes waste that ends up in landfills. His study compared a modular project with a comparable site built facility and that modular construction is in fact “greener, faster, and smarter.”
So to argue against modular and offsite construction is to argue against improved resource efficiency, improved worker productivity and safety and against the natural evolution of the construction industry. Henry Ford no doubt had his critics in his day. Thank goodness he didn’t listen to them and moved forward with his radical assembly line construction process. Otherwise, we all may be riding horses to work today.
Started on June 16, 2014 by Tom Hardiman