Modular Building Institute

Discussion Forum

The “Problem” with Modular

Original Comment:
I’m hearing a lot of people these days saying our industry has a “language problem” - meaning we call ourselves too many things and confuse the public. That may be the case with some, but it has never been an issue with MBI.

Well, to be fair, we did consider it.

I recall about ten years ago our board of directors debated changing the name of the organization, as some felt the word “modular” had a negative connotation. Maybe if we called ourselves something more catchy or modern, we could shake this misconception about inferior quality.

Ultimately, and thankfully, we came to our senses. We realized that we can call ourselves anything we wanted, but if our industry didn’t provide higher quality buildings, faster than site built, at the same or less cost, and with less waste, then we would not shake these misconceptions, and that new name would carry forward the same stigmas.

Rather than focusing on marketing a new industry term, we worked on making the industry better in several ways:

MBI was instrumental in getting the National Institute of Building Sciences to create an Offsite Construction Council under its umbrella. This council provides a forum for academics, government agencies, and industry to discuss challenges, opportunities, and research ways to improve in the construction sector. Within the last five years, this council, with support from MBI has worked with the Associated General Contractors on a new Consensus Doc for the modular industry, has worked with American Institute of Architects on a Modular Design Guide for Architects, and has worked with Fannie Mae on developing a Lenders Toolkit for Multifamily Modular Projects.

We have also conducted two offsite construction industry surveys (Smith 2014, 2017) to analyze the barriers to greater adoption of modular and offsite construction. The Council is in the process of doing a third survey to measure trends and progress. I have had the privilege of serving on the Executive Committee of this Council since its inception.

MBI also embarked on an ambitious global study of the industry, tasking Professors Ryan Smith and Ivan Rupnik to determine why modular construction is gaining momentum in other parts of the world, but slower to catch on here. Their groundbreaking research served as the foundation of MBI’s “Five in Five” initiative, to grow the industry market share from its then-current 2.5% of new construction starts to 5% in 5 years.

That plan has led to the recognition it is not the name, but several factors limiting growth, including a lack of standards, lack of capacity, and lack of alliances with other construction related organizations to make modular more mainstream.

To address the standards, MBI signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Code Council to begin developing more resources for the code community. Our first task was to develop a guideline for the safe use of modified shipping containers as buildings. This was a hot topic and there was literally no guidance, just a patchwork of mismatched regulations across the country. We are now in year two of the development of two new ICC/ANSI standards for the industry. These two new standards are expected to be published in the Fall of 2021 and will provide much needed consistency in the review and approval process for offsite construction practices. MBI is also working with the Canada Standards Agency (CSA) with a similar goal in mind.

The MBI Board made another change several years ago that seemed minor at the time, but in retrospect has made a huge impact. We decided to open our membership to general contractors, architects, and owners/developers who might be interested in learning more about modular construction. Prior to this move, these were audiences MBI spent money marketing to, rather than encouraging them to join our efforts. Today, one-fourth of MBI’s membership is made up of contractors, developers, and architects. Their input and engagement is helping advance the industry in ways our marketing dollars could not accomplish.

About five years ago, MBI began sponsoring a related “Offsite Construction Expo” operated by our management company. This event created a new “sandbox” for MBI to attract more owners, developers, contractors, and design professionals interested in all forms of offsite construction, then funnel those more interested in modular towards MBI. These expos have reached well over 1,000 interested and qualified AECO companies and have directly led to over one hundred new MBI members over the past few years. This gain in membership would not have been possible without the vision of the MBI Board to open membership a few years prior.

MBI also wanted to address FUTURE industry participants. Through our educational foundations, we sponsor student design competitions and award numerous scholarships to help advance the industry. We developed the industry’s only college level Modular 101 course with Clemson University, and we have trained scores of new hires.

We saw that the modular industry faced similar challenges across the globe, despite stronger adoption rates in some countries. To help bring the industry closer, MBI created Canadian, European, and South American Advisory Councils. These new councils provide another forum to share best practices on a global level. As a result, we have seen a dramatic increase from international members at our World of Modular Conference.

By simultaneously addressing numerous threats to growth, including financing, legal, design, and building code constraints, MBI has been able to help move the MODULAR CONSTRUCTION industry more in line with traditional construction, leading to our market share nearly doubling in that time. We have helped break down not only language, but also cultural barriers.

I still feel like we are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where this industry is heading. Given the massive housing shortfall, the delayed investments in housing, healthcare, and education, and the continual decline in traditional skilled labor, I am confident that we can see another doubling of the market share over the next five years – with your help and involvement in our industry trade association!

Stay Safe.
Started on December 3, 2020 by Tom Hardiman
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