When Wuhan, China, began to first wrestle with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the need for medical centers, it turned to modular construction. In less than two weeks, it was able to create the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital and the 1,600-bed Leishenshan Hospital. Videos of the construction were shown on YouTube.

As the coronavirus begins to take hold in the U.S., many are wondering whether there will be a similar need here. There’s even talk of turning New York City’s Javits Center into a temporary medical facility. Some cities are repurposing hotels and other facilities to quarantine people or provide support for the homeless.

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With the demand for hospital facilities set to hit critical mass within the next few weeks, especially in large urban areas, many people are looking to modular construction as a potential solution.

Why modular construction is a good fit for hospitals

Stephen B. Jacobs , FAIA of Stephen B. Jacobs Group, PC , the architect behind the tallest modular hotel in New York City, explains that the ideal projects for modular construction are ones that have a lot of repetition. This means that both nursing homes and hospitals (as well as hotels and apartment buildings) are a natural fit.

Modular construction can be assembled quickly and isn’t dependent on the weather. This means modules, which are built in a factory, can be assembled at any time. Right now, while there are concerns regarding social distancing, putting modules together may require some different practices.

What may slow the process

One issue, however, is making sure modules arrive where people need them most. This becomes especially important when there is an emergency. As Jacobs notes, “The maximum width, length, and height of modular are determined by transportation considerations rather than what is right for the project.”

One of the reasons that China was able to move quickly was that it has access to a lot of inexpensive labor, much of it required to work in round-the-clock shifts. Also, the fact that Wuhan was on lockdown kept the streets free for construction vehicles and the transportation of modules.

Core benefits of modular construction

One of the most important things about modular construction is that it separates the location where the project is constructed and the availability of local labor required to construct the project conventionally. This could also allow factories to build healthcare modules and deploy them as needed.

“Modular construction in many ways simplifies the developer’s task in that it puts a significant portion of the project under a single responsibility,” said Jacobs.

Economics are also a key determination. Modular construction has the potential of achieving major savings in the construction process. We had already identified modular construction as a top trend in 2020 for cost savings and speed, both of which have now become more critical than ever before.

Moving beyond the immediate need for more hospital beds and exam rooms, it may also be possible that design trends may shift away from wide open spaces toward properties with more individual rooms and sections. This could make modular construction even more appealing for the long term.

What does modular construction look like for the long haul?

“For modular construction to take the next leap into fireproof high-rise construction, we require many more local factories with the ability, reliability, and financial structure to produce fireproof modular that are required for multistory buildings,” says Jacobs.


Source: Millionacres

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More than 1,300 people answered a job advert for carpenters, labourers, joiners and shop fitters to work at Darwin Group, in Shawbury, building emergency hospital units to combat the virus.

From its manufacturing centre, wards for more than 150 new beds will be built using the companies advanced modular design system. The manufacturing centre will be working virtually 24 hours a day seven days a week to get the buildings delivered in the shortest possible time.

The buildings will be going to three NHS trusts in England in the North West, Midlands and Home Counties regions.

The building modules will be transported to the three sites, from the Shropshire manufacturing centre, where the Darwin installation and site completion teams will commission the wards for use. The whole process is expected to take around nine to 10 weeks.

A company spokesman said: “We wouldn’t be able to achieve this without the full support of our manufacturing, site and office staff who have been magnificent in stepping up to this challenge.”

The company said it has also engaged specialist local suppliers to provide a full hot and cold meal service for the workers, as well as a specialist cleaning company to provide “the highest level of cleanliness and sanitisation practical in the workplace”, in an effort to protect staff as far as possible, while still providing an absolutely essential service.

An advert for the jobs on Facebook placed by Shrewsbury recruitment firm Team 4 You yesterday received an unprecedented response, with operations director Nick Lewis revealing they had taken more than 1,390 calls and hundreds of emails.

He said it was a great response and had included all manner of people wanting to help, including one 76-year-old retired carpenter.

Mr Lewis said they would be keeping all the details of the people who had been in contact and would be matching their skills ready for when they need more workers.

The developments come as the government is looking to increase capacity for intensive care units to treat people most seriously affected by coronavirus.


Yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the construction of a 4,000-bed hospital at the ExCel centre in London, with 500 to be ready in a matter of days.

The Darwin Group’s website explains its track record in providing buildings for the NHS, saying: “Darwin Group are one of the UK’s most reliable and trusting providers of modular healthcare buildings, with considerable experience in delivering permanent solutions for a wide range of healthcare needs to clients in both the public and private sector; including ward accommodation, outpatient care and walk in centres.

“Using the latest construction techniques Darwin Group Ltd can deliver outstanding facilities at an exceptionally affordable price in a time scale that suits you. Completing every build with minimum disruption, and maximum infection control to ensure the safety of patients, staff and visitors at all times.”

The firm has a wealth of experience building modular hospital buildings, with its website stating: “Darwin Group have been awarded more than 20 projects through the NHS SBS Modular Buildings Framework over the last 2 years. We have also been awarded places on all five lots applied for on the Crown Commercial Services (CCS) Modular Buildings Framework. Our position on these frameworks is testament to our experience and the quality of construction services we are able to offer.”

The firm also built a 24-bed acute medical unit for Wye Valley NHS Trust at Hereford County Hospital.

Source: Shropshire Star

Giulio D’Andrea, marketing director at Green Life Buildings asks: Could MMC be the solution to the UK’s post-coronavirus housing backlog?


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Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. When you don’t what to think any more, you look for wisdom elsewhere: from Shakespeare, from the Bible or from a football manager.

Let’s start by (mis)quoting Bill Shankly, a Liverpool FC coach even greater than Jürgen Klopp: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death … it is much, much more important than that.” Let’s substitute finance for football. If I asked: “What’s your greatest concern right now?” I’ll bet it wouldn’t be the fiddly process of applying for a mortgage from a British bank or building society. Like most of the world, your worry is how we’re going to overcome the mortal, viral threat we all face.

Unlike the crash of 2008, the problem is the spread of a natural virus, not the international transmission of dodgy, man-made mortgages. Central banks can lessen the economic impact of coronavirus, but they can’t slow its spread, immunise individuals or cure those who catch it.

I don’t pretend to know when society might get back to ‘normal’ or what the new normal will look like. It may be nothing like the past. But let’s take housing and look a few months or years ahead. If construction, like other industries, is forced into unseasonal hibernation, the current housing backlog will grow and the need for new starts and completions will intensify.

What can be done to get MMC financed more seamlessly?

Homes England could hold specific events for lenders and valuers and invite modern methods of construction (MMC) providers to discuss the benefits of their systems over traditional methods.

Homes England should be actively encouraging structural warranty to provide the likes of the National House-Building Council (NHBC) with the technical/admin support to understand the different systems, so the seal of approval can be granted faster.

There is a real opportunity for lenders to finance projects that are only viable by using MMC systems, such as infill sites, or tier two sites, therefore, an individual or department within each lender that specialises in MMC should be considered. Some lenders are already undertaking this.

VAS Panel should have access to a group of valuers that specialise in MMC, who can, therefore, provide lenders with the appropriate information to aid finance applications.

Home England’s development finance fund should consider preferential rates for developers that are willing to adopt MMC on their scheme over traditional.


The MMC offering

Overcoming years of hidebound obstruction from builders and developers, MMC — like the advanced building system from Green Life Buildings — is recognised and being promoted by the government. What Green Life Buildings and other MMC firms offer is a way of building smarter, cleaner, warmer and quicker. Good for developers, for buyers, for the environment and for lenders, too. Or so you might think.

Here we come up against the law of unintended consequences; the reverse of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, where selfish acts benefit all. In this case, official recognition of MMC has led some lenders to create a new MMC loan category. Ticking MMC on a mortgage application form can mean a slow, bureaucratic process that delays rather than accelerates new construction. Since MMC is by nature new, how can a building society surveyor assess local demand for MMC houses in setting a value against which to lend? Catch-22.

It may comfort finance professionals to know they’re not to blame for the crisis. But if mortgage lenders want to help get Britain better housed as we recover from the current crisis, here’s one idea.

If mortgage business is slack in the coming months — as seems likely — why not use the time to review the lending process so that MMC is a plus point for borrowers and not an obstacle to getting a mortgage? And if the government is serious about promoting modern, greener building, it should use its powers as a referee to blow the whistle on lenders who accidentally obstruct MMC.

Guru Bill Shankly had it right.

“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they do not know the game.”

Modern construction needs modern financing. If politicians don’t understand the game, it’s time they learned at least to avoid scoring an own goal.


Source: Development Finance Today


Following the launch of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report, the Housing Secretary has said that he wants to see zero-carbon homes being built “as standard” within 5 years. David Hopkins, Director at the Confederation of Timber Industries, argues we have no time to waste and discusses how switching focus to building homes with timber can achieve this now.


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The construction industry is faced with a paradox – charged with building more houses, whilst reducing the amount carbon produced. When looking at the emissions of the industry over the last decade, the trend is worrying – with total emissions from construction climbing rather than falling. Building more resilient, efficient, sustainable and attractive homes is key to addressing this conundrum.

It is certainly true that whilst there are challenges the industry must face up to, there are readily available solutions that can sustainably ease the current, and dire, housing shortage. One of these solutions is increasing the use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). MMC use offsite construction methods, and are quicker, cheaper, quieter and more environmentally friendly than traditional onsite methods.

We can make MMC even more sustainable by using them to build with timber. Timber is the most sustainable, effective and attractive construction material available to use, and using it is key to meeting emissions targets. Indeed, one of the key recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change in its recent report UK housing: Fit for the future? is to increase the use of timber in construction.

Currently, only around 22% of homes in England are built using timber frames, with only a slightly higher percentage UK-wide. This represents a significant missed opportunity. If the target additional 270,000 homes per year were built using MMC, homes would not only be built more quickly, but they would boost local economic development, modernise and boost productivity in the construction industry, and help the UK become a world leading low-carbon economy. The Committee on Climate Change calculated that if those 270,000 homes were built out of timber, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon.

The Government can do their bit to help deliver this, by working with industry to ensure procurement contracts are awarded to manufacturers based on their contribution and commitment to low carbon construction. Equally, local authorities could incorporate a preference for using the lowest embodied carbon systems and materials into every council’s planning policy framework. In order to meet the skills requirement needed to build more homes, local governments should introduce a requirement to employ a minimum number of apprentices and provide a minimum level of training into local planning policy frameworks.

These measures would help encourage investment into timber-frame factory development across the country.

Unlike other materials, trees require little more than sunlight and water to grow, and they absorb and store carbon as wood. Timber itself is lightweight, easy to use, and requires very little energy to produce high performance, low carbon buildings. Our own industry life-cycle assessment studies have shown that more carbon is absorbed and stored in timber products than it takes to manufacture them – something no other mainstream material can claim!

The threat to life on this planet from climate change coupled with the need to build good quality housing at scale, quality and economically, should mean building with timber is the solution to many of the problems associated with the housing crisis.

There is no shortage of supply either. Thanks to sustainable management practices across Europe, far more trees are planted than are harvested. This has meant the forests of Europe – the UK’s main source of supply – have expanded by five per cent over the last quarter of a century, at a rate of 700,000 hectares per year.

Growth in the forest has come at the same time as economic and industrial growth in the timber sector, with innovations in engineered timber products meaning we can now see medium rise buildings across our cities all built from timber. Of course, persuading developers to use timber systems has not been easy. Change is difficult in a conservative supply chain. It is a lot easier dealing with what you know and building the next building in the same fashion as the last.

Of course, the Grenfell tragedy, though it was a concrete building, is having an impact because there is a misunderstanding over the performance of engineered timber systems in fire. Unlike many other materials, timber is entirely predictable in fires, and can hold its structure far longer than other frames. When exposed to fire, treated timber will form a charred layer creating its own barrier to burning, meaning that the fire is contained and struggles to spread. Despite these properties, the timber industry knows this is an Achilles heel and has invested heavily in fire testing and safety measures to reassure a sceptical public.

In 2009 what was then the world’s tallest engineered mass timber building was constructed in Murray Grove, Hackney. It was the start of a building revolution with the UK at the forefront. Choosing to build with cross-laminated timber (CLT) meant we could reduce the use of concrete, a material with one of the planet’s largest carbon footprints, for a material which captures carbon and stores it for generations – wood.

The Government, and indeed anyone with influence in this field, should urgently follow the advice of their own reports, and start building with timber for both their own and their children’s future.


Source: Politics Home


Methodology for quantifying the benefits of offsite construction CIRIA and the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, University of Cambridge, are pleased to announce the launch of a new guidance report entitled Methodology for quantifying the benefits of offsite construction (C792). Offsite construction offers the potential to deliver a number of benefits including better quality construction, improved health and safety, a faster construction programme as well as predictability of cost and time on any given project. Despite this, uptake of offsite construction is slow as there is no industry method for assessing the benefits of offsite techniques. This new CIRIA guide proposes a framework for comparing construction approaches, making it possible to keep consistent records across projects and identify all the possible benefits available. This guide also highlights the challenges that can be expected when assessing the performance of construction projects and developing robust benchmarks for comparison. It provides a framework for evaluating project performance that can be used by clients, construction management teams and designers to assess the value and benefits achieved on projects. The guidance is set to support decision making and facilitate wider industry collaboration across different sectors in the construction industry. Professor Lord Robert Mair, Emeritus Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge commented “There is compelling evidence for more widespread adoption of offsite manufacture in construction. Yet a methodology for quantifying its benefits is much needed. The process outlined in this excellent report provides an invaluable guide for industry professionals, such as contractors and project managers, as well as those who are influential in decision-making on construction projects, including clients, advisors and policy makers.”


The guide is available to download freely from www.ciria.org/c792.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has signed an agreement within Urban Splash to build 10,000 new homes using Modern Methods of Construction

The WMCA has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Urban Splash to build 10,000 new homes in the region.

The partnership deal is aimed at helping the WMCA hit targets to deliver 215,000 new homes across the region by 2031, and brownfield regeneration, in order to meet future housing and economic demand.

MOU agreement

The signed MOU outlines that House by Urban Splash will aim to deliver circa 5% of WMCA’s 215,000 new homes target within the region by 2031. A target of 10,000 new multi tenure homes consisting of various ownership models will be delivered across the West Midlands over the 11 year period.

Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, said: “The West Midlands economy is continuing to grow at a fast pace and more companies and people are coming here looking to enjoy everything our region has to offer.

“This is of course brilliant news, but it also brings with it a set of challenges, especially in terms of providing enough homes and commercial premises to keep up with demand.

“Urban Splash is one of the most innovative developers in the UK using modern methods of construction that can deliver quality homes at pace on reinvigorated brownfield sites.

“By combining that expertise with WMCA resources, support and expertise we can help meet the housing demand and transform acres of former industrial land into vibrant new communities, protecting our precious greenbelt land in the process.”

Nathan Cornish, group board director at Urban Splash, added: “This partnership brings together investment, understanding and skills to develop brownfield sites, transforming past industrial wasteland into modern-day homes and communities.

“This is further reflective of the current confidence in the regional market and economy – and as the Chancellor noted in his Budget, the commitment at national level to meet the housing demand.

“Urban Splash know the West Midlands well, having delivered iconic projects at Fort Dunlop and Rotunda. We are currently on-site at Port Loop working in partnership with Places for People, Canals and Rivers Trust and Birmingham City Council.

“It is brownfield projects like that we will target in order to bring forward more award-winning homes to the region, delivering architect-designed homes with their own identity, creating vibrant family-focused neighbours.”


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Strategic partnership

WMCA and Urban Splash’s ambition is to establish a ground-breaking strategic partnership which brings together public and private sector skills and investment to unlock complex brownfield sites and ease pressure on the greenbelt.

Urban Splash will invest in the acquisition, planning, promotion and delivery of housing development sites and will deliver sustainable communities at ‘scale and pace’.

As part of the partnership deal, Urban Splash will embrace Modern Methods of Construction as its default construction approach, and endeavour to deliver products on brownfield land fit for a region known for its manufacturing excellence.

Urban Splash will also be devoted to making architect-designed homes available to the marketplace across a range of tenures.

The partnership will see WMCA work with House by Urban Splash in order to prioritise brownfield sites to transform into neighbourhoods with distinct characteristics, and that are recognisable and different, each with their own identity.


Source: PBC Today

The technique works like an umbrella: The bridge is assembled vertically, then lowered and “opened” with hydraulic joints.

By  Derya Özdemir


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Engineers from the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) have developed a futuristic twist on building bridges and demonstrated the technique for the first time in Austria last week. The umbrella-like technique resembles the opening and closing of an umbrella over a river.

The traditional way to construct a bridge happens piece by piece: either the engineers make use of scaffolding or use piers to act as vertical load-bearing structures. In order to keep balance, things progress bit by bit, and the bridge is carefully built outwards in any direction.

According to the researchers, this new bridge construction system is expected to be much simpler, faster, cheaper, and has a less environmental impact.

The team had been working on the new method for years: the idea was patented in 2006, in 2010 first tests were carried out by TU Wien. The technique involved hollow girders being mounted to a pier in an upright position. Girders would be joined at the top, and then, would be gently unfolded downwards.

The researchers implemented the new technique for the first time over the Lafnitz River on the border of Austria and Hungary, where Austria’s new S7 motorway is being constructed.

As it was imagined on the paper, the bridge, which is roughly 236 ft long, was assembled vertically instead of horizontally and lowered with bendable hydraulic joints that mimic an umbrella’s internal movements.

You can watch the bridge unfold here:


Once the hollow girders were lowered all the way through and horizontal, they could be filled with concrete to complete the structural components of the bridge. According to the team, this technique provides a bridge of the same durability as the traditional methods, while saving a lot of time.

Johann Kollegger of the Institute of Structural Engineering of TU Wien says, “Erecting bridges using scaffolding usually takes months. The elements for the balanced lowering method, on the other hand, can be set up in two to three days, and the lowering process takes around three hours.”

In this case, less time equals fewer costs, and the method could prove extremely useful in areas with uneven terrains or nature reserves that are ought to left undisturbed.

Moreover, it would be much safer for workers since after the umbrella-technique there is only a safe and completed bridge ready to fill in and finish.

If the practice catches on, this might be the future of constructing bridges.


Source: Interesting Engineering


Some good news out of Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province and epicenter for the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that’s now intensifying elsewhere across the globe.

Authorities have suspended operations at all 16 of the city’s temporary hospitals—most erected and put into operation with remarkable speed and efficiency—as the infection rate across the greater Wuhan region continues to plummet following an aggressive, nearly two-month-long quarantine period. The temporary facilities were established with the express purpose of treating patients suffering from symptoms of coronavirus. The first of these makeshift hospitals discharged its last group of recovered patients on March 1.

The news of the hospitals’ closure comes at roughly the same time as Chinese state media declared that the spread of the virus has been constrained in Hubei and beyond, with only new 19 new cases being reported as of March 9, all of them in Wuhan, a significant drop from just the day before. In total, Chinese officials have reported 80,754 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the outbreak began in late December. There have been 3,136 resulting deaths in China, with the first being reported on January 11.

To mark the encouraging milestone, President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan for the first time since the outbreak began, where he relayed, per the BBC, that the virus had been “basically curbed” in the region.

“Initial success has been made in stabilising the situation and turning the tide in Hubei and Wuhan,” said Xi.

President Xi’s visit to Wuhan included a stopover at the 1,000-bed Huoshenshan Hospital, where he “visited” on-their-way-out patients and medical staff via video. Encompassing 645,000 square feet, Huoshenshan (“Mount Fire God”) Hospital was one of two field hospitals built-from-scratch on the outskirts of Wuhan, China’s 9th most populous city, in under 10 days using modular construction methods. This approach, taking a direct page from a prefab hospital erected in Beijing during the 2003 SARS outbreak, was in lieu of repurposing large existing structures such as convention centers and stadiums as was the case with most of the city’s other temporary medical facilities.

Construction of Huoshenshan Hospital kicked off on January 23 was completed on February 2, with its first patients being admitted the next morning. A sister facility erected from prefabricated modules, Leishenshan (“Mount Thunder God”) Hospital, opened on February 8 in a massive disused parking lot in the neighboring Jiangxia district.

“China has a record of getting things done fast, even for monumental projects like this,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the BBC when work on Huoshenshan Hospital was first underway. “Engineering work is what China is good at. They have records of building skyscrapers at speed. This is very hard for Westerners to imagine. It can be done.”

Time lapse video: Construction of Wuhan Huoshenshan Hospital completed

With ample room to accommodate between 1,500 and 2,000 patients and a 1,260-person-strong medical staff, the largest of Wuhan’s now-closed coronavirus treatment centers, dubbed the Wuhan Living Room Temporary Hospital, took over a major exhibition center. While transforming an expo center into a massive emergency medical center practically overnight was obviously quite a feat of planning and logistics, the hospital didn’t receive as grandiose a name as its swiftly realized modular counterparts.

Dr. Zhang Junjian, a neurologist at Wuhan University and the director of the Wuhan Living Room hospital, told the Associated Press at the end of February that he expected operations to end in “maybe in mid-March or during the last ten days of March because fewer patients are being admitted and the number of patients being discharged is gradually increasing now.”

“If nothing special happens, I expect the operation of our makeshift hospital, the biggest one in Wuhan, could complete its historical mission by the end of March,” he added.

Based on the news coming out of China, that much-anticipated day came even earlier than expected.


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As China basks in these encouraging developments and its president takes a very public victory lap, the spread of the virus shows no signs of slowing elsewhere including in heavily ravaged Italy, which recently enacted an unprecedented nationwide shut-down for all 60 million of its residents following a regional quarantine that was limited to the country’s northern regions. This week, Italy also recorded the highest single-day fatality rate—168 people killed by the virus in 24 hours—since the outbreak began.

The United States, particularly the Seattle metro area and suburban New York City, has also experienced an alarming uptick in confirmed cases over the last several days.


Source: The Architects Newspaper


The Kingspan TEK Building System of structural insulated panels (SIPs) has provided the bespoke, thermally efficient shell for a minimalist pavilion at Eton College’s Willowbrook Outdoor Sports Centre.

The stunning single-storey building, designed by Lewandowski Architects, sits at the centre of the site and provides a range of facilities including changing rooms, toilets and a kitchen along with a roof-top viewing platform. Feltham Construction managed work on the project which included the demolition of the building’s outdated predecessor. Wood was a key part of the material palette with charred timber fitted for the outer cladding and birch-ply boards fitted internally. This approach extended to the structure, with Bentley SIP Systems using the Kingspan TEK Building System for the walls of the structural shell.

Kingspan TEK Building System is formed from SIPs with a high performance, rigid insulation core autohesively bonded between two OSB/3 facings. 142mm thick Kingspan TEK panels were selected for the walls of the pavilion. As Kingspan TEK Delivery Partners, Bentley SIP Systems oversaw the design and factory cutting of the panels before delivering them to site.

David Bentley from Bentley SIP Systems discussed the project:

“The Kingspan TEK Building System was specified by Lewandowski Architects at the pre-tender stage and we worked with them from that point to the erection of the building shell. The System was chosen both because of its excellent insulation properties and because it could facilitate a fast-track construction programme. As we pre-cut each panel to the project’s specific requirements, we were easily able to incorporate features such as the structural steel which supports the retractable glazing to the front of the building.”


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The Kingspan TEK Building System’s unique jointing system ensures insulation continuity between the panels, helping to minimise repeating thermal bridges. In combination with the OSB/3 facing, this jointing arrangement also facilitates the creation of highly airtight buildings. This should help to reduce the long-term heating requirements for the project and provide a warm, comfortable environment for athletes and spectators.

Bentley SIP Systems’ operatives were able to rapidly erect the SIPs with a dry installation programme. The precision factory design eliminated the need for offsite alterations and waste whilst the OSB/3 facing provided an ideal substrate for the external and internal timber cladding.

For further information, please contact:


Tel: +44 (0) 1544 387 384

Fax: +44 (0) 1544 387 484

e.mail: literature@kingspantek.co.uk

Website: www.kingspantek.co.uk



Joe Beeton of Construction Dive reports on a recent USA survey.

Modular Monitor: How GCs, trades and architects view offsite construction, by the numbers

Survey responses from Dodge show that the professions are aligned on some aspects and at odds on others. Here’s what the data might mean for the future of offsite.

Since Construction Dive began taking the pulse of offsite construction, this column has been inundated with praise for the method from self-identified modular builders.

Modular-focused firms are putting together vertically integrated business models, handing over keys to turnkey buildings and even calling the movement disruptive. 

But modular builders likely can’t move the needle on their own, so the focus is different for this month’s column: modular’s other stakeholders. 

While there are over 200 modular builders in the U.S., according to the Modular Building Institute, commercial modular building only accounts for about 4% of the market. It would take sweeping buy-in from traditional contractors, designers, owners and all applicable trade professionals for modular to be defined as an industry disruption, or a “major disturbance in the way things are done,” as Ivan Rupnik, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture, puts it.

Owners may be the most pivotal, because they conceive and fund projects, and if a build is going to be modular, it has to be modular before shovels hit the dirt, according to Laurie Robert, LEED AP and vice president of modular building specialist NRB Inc. in Canada.

Who’s making way for modular?

While Robert also expressed the common sentiment that lack of education among owners often inhibits modular’s take-off, it’s important to note that there seems to be a certain threshold for a tipping point: Once owners are convinced, they go out and actively champion it.

But what about architects, construction managers and subcontractor groups such as erectors and building enclosure trades? What do they seem to agree on, and where do they differ?

To that end, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released a report that culled together thought leadership on modular and prefabrication, such as the observation from Rupnik, and recorded results from a survey on modular construction that elicited responses from more 600 AEC professionals ranging from designers to steel fabricators.

To participate, respondents had to have worked on at least one project that involved prefabrication elements or full modular construction in the last three years. Of that pool, only 15 identified as modular builders or manufacturers, and their answers were recorded separately.

As a publication that’s trying to shine light on the industry’s more comprehensive and often varied views of modular, it’s refreshing for Construction Dive to see a vast array of tangential stakeholders weigh in on the topic.

Answers were broken out by three professions.


Analysis shows how much they dovetail on myriad sentiments and also some of the ways in which they contrast.

General contractors that responded, for example, overwhelmingly showed support for offsite building methods. That may not be a total surprise, considering that last month we heard heavyweights that have made their name in traditional stick building, such as Mortenson and DPR, talk about benefits they’ve had with offsite construction.

But it’s important to consider where GCs’ stance fits among other stakeholders in the built environment.

For one, this was the group that most forecasted increased use of full-volumetric permanent modular construction. A slight majority predicted only 25% or less of their projects being composed of mostly flat-packed or 3D modules built offsite in the next three years. But more importantly, a quarter of that group said they’ll be using the method on more than half of their projects. Only 13% anticipated no involvement at all.

Where does modular make sense?

Out of 14 market segments, GCs found medical facilities the most promising for modular construction. Forty-one per cent selected healthcare as being in the top 10 most-promising sectors, which represents a higher volume than any other category. Respondents were going out on a limb on their healthcare predictions, because that number is double the percentage of firms that ranked it as one of the top building types they’d done through modular means in the past three years.

Healthcare ranked similarly for the 219 trades representatives that responded. Like the GCs’ rankings, it also came in as the subs’ strongest category for modular growth, with 56% crowning it in their top 10 despite only 31% putting it in that class when looking back.

But the consensus of contractors and subs differ from that of designers, who stand behind multifamily as the strongest contender for increasing modular inroads. Half of the more than 200 architects and engineers polled ranked it in one of the top spots, despite only 16% saying it’s been one of the most prominent categories in recent years.

Multifamily is perhaps the biggest enigma of the report. “Design firms,” for instance, according to co-authors Stephen Jones and Donna Laquidara-Carr, “are extremely positive about the role of modular on multifamily projects going forward,” and the numbers back that up.

Trades, on the other hand, more frequently ranked it as being significant in the last three years yet not nearly as likely to hold such importance in the next three. GCs’ take seems to be that it will taper slightly but remain about the same, with only 33% saying it has been and will continue to be one of the top building types for modular.

GCs and trades are also more optimistic about modular in the hospitality segment, with it coming in second and third in that same index, respectively, for the next three years. Designers, on the contrary, anticipate the sector’s use of modular slowing.


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What’s driving offsite’s growth?

For all groups, the “desire to increase productivity” reigned as the most important factor influencing the move to offsite in the past three years, according to Laquidara-Carr and her team’s findings, though builders and subs ranked productivity gains even higher than designers, likely because of how it impacts their workflow.

“Remaining competitive” was the second-most influential factor among all three, and even more so for subs.

“Interestingly,” the report notes, “design firms report having been most highly motivated by seeking improved cost performances (58%) — out [pacing] both GCs/CMs (49%) and trades (50%).

“This,” the findings continue, “ … [indicates] that architects and engineers understand both prefabrication and modular construction can have a positive influence on cost control and should lead to more development of design solutions that consciously enable both.”

What’s holding modular back?

The rub, however, is that designers forecasted the lowest overall percentage of prefabricated assemblies usage in the coming three years. Only 16% anticipated use of prefab components such as behind-the-wall plumbing assemblies for headwalls or multi-trade assemblies such as above-the-ceiling corridor racks in hospitals, as opposed to full-volumetric room modules.

This means, the authors wrote, that designers need “to become more engaged with designing in a way that enables contractors to implement prefabrication.”

Getting on the same page in the development of both prefabricated assemblies-based and module designs takes teamwork, and the culture needs to change, NRB’s Robert said. “The formation of your team, including the owner, the architect, the general contractor, the modular builder and all other stakeholders,” she continued, “is certainly the most important aspect of a modular project’s success.”

Luckily, for the sake of modular’s advancement, there are many things to agree on. All three groups leaned into the idea that modular construction improves project schedule performance, with that factor resonating as the biggest driver for growth. Around half of each groups’ respondents believed modular reduces project costs enough to consider it a highly influential factor in stirring up demand.

But GCs didn’t agree with most subs and designers on modular’s penchant for improved quality as being a top driver. Only 34% believed it will play an important role, whereas half of the designers and half the subs said it’d have an increasingly high level of influence.

Another area in which all groups aligned included their take on what’s inhibiting modular growth the most. Owners, as noted, are still one of the biggest influencers on whether industry players toying with offsite tactics actually employ them on projects or not —​ and that’s true for all groups, with each ranking “lack of owner interest” a top obstacle.

Kendra Halliwell, associate principal of the women-owned Icon Architecture, also previously expressed the fact that availability of modular factories, or lack thereof, can be a big determinant in whether a modular project gets greenlit. That’s even more evident for designers, according to the report, with half of that group ranking it as a huge setback to growth and GCs trailing slightly in that opinion.

“One thing I want to emphasize is, if you’re doing a modular project, to visit the factory at least once a week while it’s being constructed,” the AIA and LEED AP architect said during a case study presentation of her firm’s first modular build, the 171-unit, 129-module The Graphic Lofts, Boston’s largest modular multifamily development. “We didn’t plan for that, and we ended up having to make up for that. We did, however, meet three times a week — sometimes through virtual meetings — with the architect, contractor and modular manufacturer.” Proximity to the factory is key, she said.

Trade contractors, however, don’t see availability in the same light. Only about 23% considered it a problem, but that could be because trades “are not as involved in sourcing suppliers,” according to the report.

How are supply decisions made?

How players select modular construction services is another eye-opener. “Design firms and GCs most highly value expertise,” the report found, but “design firms are far more influenced by owners on their modular supplier decisions than GCs.”

“Price,” however, “is not a highly influential factor for selection of a modular construction supplier,” for any groups using full-volume modular builds, the authors found, noting that it will likely be more of a factor as more and more suppliers enter the market.

But that’s different from what respondents had to say about the supply of prefabricated components and services. “This contrasts with prefabrication, where it ranked second overall on this same list of six factors and was cited as the primary influencer by 20% of GCs/CMs,” the report noted. “This may reflect the different maturity levels between these two markets, where because there are more suppliers available for prefabrication, price can be more readily used for competitive evaluation.”

Yet a different take is that some builds involve a combination of both full-module rooms and single- or multi-trade prefabricated assemblies, or combine those offsite elements with traditional methods, otherwise known as hybrid builds. Robert, concurring with another common perception, espoused the value of hybrid models.

And it’s in hybrid or prefab work where many subs shine. While they are involved in full-volume modularization jobs as well, they often are the most heavily invested when it comes to any other jobs that require at least partial panelisation or prefab components.

The study notes that “trades can often make the decision to prefabricate their part of the work without significantly impacting or involving other trades.” Subs seemed both the most well-versed in prefabrication when looking back at the past three years and also the most enthusiastic about the next three.

Subcontractors often have to put their workers’ necks on the line, so modular’s purported safety benefits hold a lot of water for subs. “Safety scores far higher with trade contractors because of its direct impact on their workforce,” the report said.



Source: Construction Dive