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Will we see a shift towards modular construction in the UK?

How can we – in the UK and globally – build more quickly and to higher standards? It’s a question that often comes up. And we might be quite close to answering it, at least in certain sectors of the construction industry.

It’s quite possible that we are going to see a genuine “paradigm shift” over the next few years – a shift towards modular construction.

Building and construction has almost always happened on site. In fact, my team and I make regular site visits as part of our day-to-day work as structural engineers. But this may change as modular construction techniques become more widespread.

If you think about it logically, building on open-air sites where it can be wet, windy or too hot – and it has been all of the above in recent days – is not particularly sensible. In terms of safety, and in terms of improving the quality of the work you’re doing, building in a more controlled environment such as a factory makes much more sense.

This way of working means you can bring advances in manufacturing to the construction sector. Rather than building on site, whole rooms or even entire apartments can be built in factories, with kitchens fitted, services put in place and even carpets and furniture included.

Each module can then be transported to the site and they simply need to be assembled and have the services connected.

Peter Flint, Chief Executive of Buildings and Places at engineering infrastructure giant AECOM, spoke to The Engineer, emphasising the importance of technology. He explained, “It’s the ability for us to design in a 3D environment and the ability to send a design straight to manufacturing, that allows us do this properly. The key thing you want to do is create fabulous homes to a higher quality than currently, in a safe factory environment, and digital design is the tool that will enable us to do that.”

Creating these fully formed modules has to be done using a lightweight, steel-framed structure so that the “boxes” are light enough to be lifted and transported.

The only drawback is that each module is identical, but this is not a problem in a lot of projects – it makes sense for hotels, student accommodation and apartment blocks. Where a particular room is identical throughout a building, such as in hospital bathrooms, modular construction also makes sense.

The construction industry isn’t always thought of as being at the “cutting edge” but modularisation is being driven by the high-tech tools available – up to and including Artificial Intelligence.

Another likely development will be the “flying factories” needed to create these “boxes”. Due to the logistics of transporting modules to site, it will make sense to create temporary factories local to the building site.

Backing for an increase in off-site manufacture (OSM) has come via a report from the House of Lords science and technology committee. Having heard evidence that OSM could increase productivity in the sector by up to 70%, the committee is in favour of greater use of modular construction off-site.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years. What do you think? Will the sector embrace modular construction or are there still some challenges to be overcome?

Let me know your thoughts, and if you need any assistance with the structural elements of a project you’re working on, please get in touch.

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