It sounds a bit like the stuff of 20th-century science fiction. Computers are printing buildings. Entire homes are created in a factory and shipped, complete with furniture, to their final site. For the construction industry, one that has built things in largely the same way their great-grandparents did, the concept of the modular construction method can still sound fantastical. And in some ways, it still is. But it doesn’t have to be.
As founding Principal and COO of the architecture firm Forge Craft, I have lived in the modular realm for the better part of a decade. In that time, I have seen modular construction go from being associated with low-end, “mobile” homes to one of the most exciting innovations in construction technology. Though comprising less than 5 percent of all construction, modular architecture is widely accepted as the imminent future of our industry.
It is pretty easy to see the advantages of modular building. Imagine if construction projects are completed in weeks rather than years, where standardized materials and processes allow for smarter and more reliable construction, where less waste is generated, workers are safer, and fewer site disturbances occur due to the factory-controlled environment.
I have been lucky enough to have been involved with some boundary-breaking modular construction projects ranging from student housing to 3D-printed homes aimed at disaster relief. I’ve also watched some of the most exciting ideas for modular projects, waylaid by a series of challenges that have much more to do with how new this delivery method is than anything else.
To realize the full potential of modular construction as a delivery method, those of us who are designing in this space, even those of us who are competing for projects, need to come together around advocating for the changes we need to see, including but not limited to zoning, codes, and approval processes. Here are some of the key challenges the industry is currently grappling with, as well as some of the most impactful ways to traverse these hurdles and expand the opportunities available for modular construction.
Codes and permitting
Navigating inconsistent building codes and requirements across different states and jurisdictions remains one of the most significant challenges in modular construction today. Currently, only 37 states have Industrialized Housing & Building programs dedicated to modular construction, further complicating matters.
When evaluating how best to navigate this, it’s evident there’s a pressing need for standardization and uniformity in regulations. For the industry to help establish these more consistent guidelines, the essential next step for the industry is unified lobbying efforts for rules and regulations to abide by.
But change takes time. So, in the meantime, teams can be as proactive and transparent as possible when it comes to sharing project plans with all project stakeholders, including local jurisdictions. Developing detailed schedules of values, matrices of responsibilities, critical-path charting, and early comprehensive code analyses can mitigate risks and liabilities. The proactive sharing of these documents with both state and local jurisdictions will ideally foster a smoother regulatory process and prevent either regulatory authority from coming back later down the road to request changes and cause further delays.
Lack of understanding
Since the industry still largely designs and builds in the traditional way, developers and owners often have limited understanding and experience with modular construction. And even if they’re not skeptical, their capital often is, which poses its own set of challenges. To make matters more complicated
, there is the logistical challenge of managing, scheduling, and funding both modular off-site construction methodologies concurrently with traditional site-built methodologies on the same project.
Think about how many layers make up a traditional project team. In the case of modular, it’s highly unlikely your traditional contractors have experience navigating the nuances of modular, meaning you often need to hire consultants for your consultants to ensure the project comes together successfully. Adding these layers on top of what is already likely a large project team can generate significant organizational challenges with having to coordinate and manage multiple
This challenge highlights a tremendous opportunity for contractors to develop specializations in modular construction to augment their own skilled labor force with this type of work. Done well, having this specialization would allow for more efficient coordination and a clearer understanding of work being completed across project teams to benefit the project in its entirety. It also potentially opens up new lines of business within traditional workforces. I’ve seen first-hand these opportunities emerge within the framing, miscellaneous steel, drywall, plumbing, and lighting fixture trades, to name but a few.
Whether a given contractor specializes in modular construction or not, it’s imperative to involve them in conversations as early as possible and maintain a strong, open line of communication to foster greater collaboration and help establish expectations of responsibilities across the entire project team.
The limited number of domestic manufacturers for modular construction poses some of the biggest challenges to broader adoption. Coupled with the fact that many modular manufacturers focus on one type of modular construction (i.e., single-family homes vs. multi-family developments), it can be challenging to find a manufacturing partner to help bring your modular project to life—even with a great design and a friendly regulatory environment.
Intelligent design of projects can help overcome this obstacle and bridge the gap between manufacturers’ capabilities and project requirements. Don’t reinvent the wheel—make better ones. Rather than relying on overly complex building systems in your plans, teams should focus on designs that are executable to make modular projects more feasible and sustainable for manufacturers.
For example, when our team at Forge Craft developed Cheatham Street Flats, a mixed-use student housing community in San Marcos, Texas, the manufacturer tasked us with manifesting the vision for the project in the form of a modular building to showcase the capabilities of steel modular construction. Employing this new system was made more challenging by the fact that the client’s Texas plant was still undergoing certification. In the end, our design team shepherded a new steel modular plant through certification (a grueling process, to say the least) while simultaneously coordinating with another of the manufacturer’s factories in Alabama on the fabrication of 340 individual modules, shipped over 800 miles to their final destination. The modular unit interiors were fully finished and shipped complete with furniture inside.
Applying emergent technology via prefabricated structural and volumetric modular systems, high-performance VRF systems, and modular means and methods, this new community was erected in 15 months.
The result, completed in June 2020, is a robust, high-performing student housing community with structural systems that ensure longevity and minimized maintenance.
When considering modular design and delivery, architects who are less familiar with modular opportunities often struggle with striking the right balance between visual aesthetics and functionality. For some architects, this poses quite a challenge. After all, our job as architects is to push the bounds of our imaginations (within the project parameters) to create captivating designs. We don’t want to be boxed in—literally or figuratively.
Before you can break the rules, it’s important to understand them. When it comes to modular, that means becoming more familiar with the parameters and dexterous with the opportunities. However, it’s critical to remember that modular does not mean boring. In fact, incorporating variety in design into a standardized modular box actually demands a higher level of creativity and ingenuity, making architects integral to shaping the future of modular construction.
Sometimes, finding that creative spark requires reframing the challenge in our minds. Instead of just asking, “Why can’t I do something more elaborate?” the question might become, “How can I optimize this design for ever greater levels of efficiency and sustainability?” Will architects need to shift their thinking, and—in some cases—will it be important to manage their expectations? Yes. For now. But with greater adoption comes more innovation and opportunities to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
The journey of modular construction is ultimately a testament to human ingenuity and sheer will. While several formidable challenges still stand in the way of making this a more mainstream process, the possibilities are incredibly exciting. Modular’s success will hinge on the collective efforts of professionals across a variety of disciplines. I challenge leaders around the industry to come together and be willing to share their experiences and advocate bringing our peers along to explore this revolutionary construction method. As we keep our modular assembly lines moving, let’s keep our lines of communication equally vigorous and forthright.