Piecing It All Together: How Modular Buildings Work—And Why They're Attracting So Much Interest

Posted on: 16 September 2014

Over the past few years, innovations in modular construction techniques have helped to revolutionize the future of construction. Today, modular and prefabrication technology is helping cut down on the cost, time, and environmental impact of construction altogether. The following will illustrate how modular construction works and outline the impact it may make on the way both companies and civil engineers may build in the future.

How Modular and Prefab Construction Works

Different sections of the building are built off-site, usually in a factory setting. Each section, or module, is fabricated based on different design specifics. In the end, each piece is built to act as interlocking pieces that will eventually create a uniform structure—pieced together by cranes on-site. The modules start out as simple steel boxes. Then, each box is edged with additional beams that form trusses that are most commonly found on bridges.

Because forces like wind make it difficult to stabilize high-rise structures comprised of boxes, the prefabricated modules also need extra cross-bracing to properly withstand the impact of earthquakes and adverse weather conditions. Because pieces are made in-factory, the building process is often much safer. For example, even the base, rails, and machine room of elevator systems can be prefabricated. Elevator accidents often lead to many construction fatalities. Instead of an elevator car being shipped in pieces, a finished car can then be installed by crane—almost completely removing this fatal aspect from the process.

Needs That Inspired More Modular Methods

Earthquakes often make visible the structural weak points in buildings to civil engineers. The economic need for cheaper buildings, and the moral need for safer structures, have both fueled the innovations behind modular facilities. Cost and environmental needs have also spurred the interest in modular methods. Modular companies are seeing the reduction of onsite water usage and construction waste. Where traditional buildings would require around 5,000 tons of water to build, modular companies are using little to no water at all. Additionally, traditional buildings can produce 30,000 tons of waste, while modular companies can produce as little as 25 tons on average—often requiring no more than a few cranes.

Examples of Light-speed Construction

In 2010, a company constructed the 15-story Ark Hotel in just two days. In 2011, a building named T-30—a 30-story hotel—was completed by that same company in only fifteen days. Remarkably, the 30-story hotel cost less than $1000 per square meter to construct. A 19-story building was recently pieced together in the UK, which includes 438 student rooms. In the construction of this structure, it's estimated that on-site waste was reduced by 90%, and the deliveries of materials to the site was reduced by 70%.

The modules for one structure were pieced together by a six-man team over a four-month period. One company is helping with the planning and construction of a 32-story modular building in New York. It's comprised of 930 modules and being put together with the help of 100 workers. Once completed, the structure will be brought together with the help of different types of cranes. The completion of this project, and the lessons the builders will learn, is expected to act as a litmus test for future modular buildings across the country.

In Conclusion

Modular and prefabricated construction methods are well-suited to vastly improve the way cities are able to provide cost-effective, environmentally-friendly, and more immediately available building solutions. In reducing both the required cost and time it takes to piece together new buildings, cities can work to respond to the diverse needs of its residents more immediately. And, in so doing, the rate of progress a city sees can expect to reach new heights.