Words by Tony Whitehead
In Melbourne they are lifting the last modules to the top of a 44-storey apartment tower which has been constructed in just 16 months. In London, a 23-storey residential block comprising 632 modules is under way in Greenwich. And in California, the world’s leading tech giant is reinventing the corporate HQ as a campus of lightweight, movable pods.
The builders and designers behind these schemes believe that modular is the future. They hold that technological improvements and market conditions are aligning in such a way that modular construction is now finally ready to deliver that sunlit world of speed, efficiency and flexibility its supporters have been telling us about for decades.
It is easy to be cynical. Modular means different things to different people, but if there can be said to be a modular sector, it has made an art of being hopeful. Since the 1990s, a string of influential, often government-backed reports has envisaged a future construction industry where buildings are factory-produced before a rapid, safe and de-risked assembly. But by and large, this has still not come to pass, and most buildings worldwide are still manufactured in the traditional way: on site.
Recent developments around the world, however, do seem indicative of boundaries being pushed. While the Google HQ designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick is currently one of the most talked-about projects in the world, the La Trobe tower in Melbourne is the highest modular structure in Australia, and Creekside Wharf in Greenwich one of the tallest in the UK. In Singapore, meanwhile, an executive condo project taking shape on Canberra Drive is believed to be the world’s largest modular building project, with eight.
10-12 storey blocks made from some 3,300 modules. It is the kind of progress which is urgently needed, according to Kamran Moazami, head of building structures at WSP — in the developing world as much as in the overcrowded cities of the West. “The future is about prefabrication,” he says. “Throughout the world, as populations rise, there is a pressing need to build cheaper, safer and quicker. For housing in particular it is an absolute must.”
"As populations rise, there is a pressing need to build cheaper, safer and quicker — for housing it is a must"Kamran Moazami, WSP
But if modular really can supply those benefits, why is it that for many it remains a fringe specialism, restricted to temporary classrooms or cheap homes in the desert? There are many reasons, from the economic to the technical: “With tall structures, for example, there is an issue with tolerances,” says Moazami. “Conventional construction gives you the luxury of being able to adjust as the building goes up and accumulated weight causes some movement. You can design modular systems to very tight tolerances — and the computer model might be perfect — but on site the reality is sometimes different.” There are also concerns over lack of expertise and the reluctance of potential adopters to invest in training. “You have to know how to put these things together, but not many people on site have experience of building with modular on any scale,”adds Moazami.
Designing and kitting out a factory to make modules is another huge upfront and long-term investment. “You need a consistently high volume throughput to make it work economically,” says WSP director Jane Richards. The company discovered this for itself when working in the UK with student accommodation provider Unite to design a system that could provide accommodation blocks up to 14 storeys high. Modules featured a cold-rolled, light-gauge steel frame and were completely finished inside with en-suite facilities. “They even had beds and lampshades,” says Richards. “The idea was that the first person to open the door was the student who would live in it.”
However, the project foundered during the recession as demand dwindled and all-important volumes dropped. Attempts were made to sell to other markets, such as budget hotels, but still there was insufficient volume to keep the facility viable. The modules were perhaps too specific, and the business plan too uncompromising for that market at that time: “You need the right balance,” says Richards. “High volume, highly finished modules can be brilliantly efficient. But sometimes a kit-of-parts approach gives you more flexibility.”