BLOG: The architect’s role in maximising modular benefits through collaboration and innovation

Modular and offsite construction is one of the industry’s most talked about topics. As the housing crisis deepens and the government and developers are tasked with finding a solution, modern methods of construction such as modular and offsite are often some of the first answers that come to mind for those looking to provide flexible housing solutions at high volume and quick turnaround.

It is undeniable that a stigma still hangs over the concept. Low quality prefabricated post-war social housing (mostly constructed in the sixties and seventies), has left the nation with a hangover that architects must acknowledge and overcome if the method is to maintain momentum, and once again become an industry standard for appropriate projects.

Perception is key to maintaining support for the continued development of modular and offsite projects. This places architects at the forefront of not only designing high quality and cost-effective modular developments, but also dispelling the myths that surround the concept and continuing its development as a discipline, by integrating new technology and introducing aspirational new uses.

This piece will explore ways in which architects can demonstrate modular and offsite construction’s impressive versatility, the vital importance of collaboration with the manufacturing side of the process, and the unique benefits it can bring to sectors beyond that of residential.

Communication and optimisation
Modular building requires a radically changed design and build process when compared to traditional methods of construction. The most notable difference being the liaison between manufacturers and architects and the uniquely complex supply chain that this involves. These differences can trip up those that are new to the concept and not well versed in the steps required to successfully deliver a high quality modular project on time and on budget.

Building a strong relationship with manufacturers and maintaining a constant line of communication throughout the design, fabrication and transport process is key.

Aligning both the architect and manufacturer’s approach through the intelligent application of technology facilitates a manufacturing process that maximises efficiencies, allowing both sides of the process to push the boundaries of design.

The architect’s role in this process goes beyond simply designing the structure itself – it extends to the effective use of building information modelling (BIM), and aligning this with the fabrication processes. The RIBA DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) guidelines seek to align this methodology with the RIBA Plan of Works Stages to illustrate how this process can help to streamline and increase the productivity of the manufacturing process.

A cross-sector approach

When the process between architect and manufacturer has been mastered, it also opens doors to introducing modular and offsite construction to new sectors. Building templates that allow for a number of standardised models can prove popular with clients – as can the uniquely quick construction time that modular and offsite construction provides.

Sectors such as education and retail can particularly enjoy these benefits, with modular builds providing a top-quality product that can be assembled quickly – particularly useful in the development of schools that work to strict Output Specification Guidelines and requirements and carefully sequenced around the school holidays, or supermarkets looking to expand quickly at a reasonable budget.

The benefit of using sealed factory built units also extends beyond potential costs and speed of construction. Off-site timber construction in schools for example, can provide increased energy efficiency and thermal performance, as well as lower wastage in the construction process and risk of onsite weather damage, while providing a safer construction environment. Enhanced build quality is also achieved through construction within a controlled factory environment.

Go mobile

Building modular effectively can also provide benefits that have the potential to totally transform the way in which we look at residential development.

The implementation of plug-in units adds a level of portability that has previously been unheard of in the property sector. Developments can be constructed in an area of high demand and remain there until the land is required for another use, at which point they can be moved to another area to fulfil the same purpose.

This is of benefit to local authorities and planners looking to create high density affordable housing with a quick turnaround – which can then be repurposed for another authority in the local area.

Mobility also benefits the construction process once designs are finalised, with the option for manufacturers to develop on-site factories to limit the size of the supply chain required to bring pre-assembled units from production to the intended site. This in turn has a sizeable impact on the carbon footprint of the build and the man-power required to bring a project to fruition.

Nurture industry talent

It is undeniable that the modular build process requires a new skill set for the property sector. It presents a challenge, firstly in the retention or retraining of traditional construction workers, and secondly in developing a new wave of young talent that can ensure that best practice is consistently observed.

Architects must position themselves in the correct markets to influence the development of future talent, and ensure that there is an awareness of the opportunities modular presents from both the design and manufacturing side. The development of innovative BIM technology, VR simulations and design optimisation software such as Rhinoceros and Grasshopper means that the next generation hold a wealth of transferable skills that can lead to a career in the ever-changing proptech landscape.

Communicating this to young people will be essential in helping to avoid a skills shortage and ensuring that the next generation engages with careers in the property sector.

Be persistent

Modular is a concept that is regaining traction in the mainstream, but there are still those who remain sceptical of its effectiveness. In the battle to overturn perceptions, planners and local authorities fall among the most important targets – as they are the gatekeepers to allowing these innovations to flourish.

If these hurdles can be overcome and new innovations implemented, then the future of modular construction looks bright.