Modular Construction: More Efficient, More Environmental

Modular Construction: Greater focus on sustainability in recent years has led architects and builders to put the environment in focus with their creations. Many consumers now consider green features to be a critical part of new construction, leading to innovation in terms of materials, appliances, window treatments, and more.

This article is part of a series on: Modular Construction.

Also see our resource hub: Sustainable Construction: A Comprehensive Guide

By Daniel Gray

Still, a critical problem remains, namely that construction itself is extraordinarily damaging to the environment, leading to massive waste and emissions. The United Nations Environment Program learned that construction accounts for 36% of global energy usage and 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions. 

All of this is problematic, especially in light of the growing housing crisis around the world. We need to find sustainable building methods that will meet demands for safe and affordable housing while also tending to an environment that is increasingly damaged by our actions

Modular construction, an alternative building technique, offers a remedy to many of the concerns surrounding traditional construction. Though no current solution is perfect, modular construction presents a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable building process.

Read on to learn more about how modular construction works as well as the ways in which it benefits the environment with its unique processes.

How Does Modular Construction Work?

Traditionally, buildings are constructed on-site—in other words, contractors construct the building where it is going to end up. This certainly makes sense, because we obviously want to place a building in the spot where it belongs.

That said, new building techniques actually enable contractors to manufacture buildings off-site and assemble them later, which has distinct environmental advantages that will become clear in a moment. First, though, it is helpful to understand the entire process of modular construction.

Using an assembly-line process, factory workers construct a modular building in pieces (or modules), so they are able to work on many parts of a building at the same time. The modules are created in such a way that they can easily be assembled later, similar to building blocks or LEGO. 

During their time in the factory, modules are built completely: walls, floors, roofs, insulation, and windows are all added. Often, fixtures and finishes are also added during the factory process, such that a modular building is essentially complete before it ever leaves the factory floor. 

Warehouse building modular homes
Image courtesy of Colorado Building Systems.

Once all of the modules for a building are completed, they are transported to the job site, where they are assembled by a crew of workers using cranes. As pieces are added to the building, construction workers “lock” the modules together. Meanwhile, plumbers and electricians work throughout the building to hook up pipes and wires that were already installed in the factory. With this method, large structures can be erected in a relatively short period of time by small crews of workers. 

Crane lifting modular constructions at a sea port
Image courtesy of Archinect.

Though it may seem that modular construction is just a new or modern way of building, it actually has unique characteristics that make it more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. 

Modular Construction is Better for the Environment

Though modular construction is responsible for beautiful and affordable buildings around the world, its true power lies in its ability to tackle some of the most difficult construction tasks in a more sustainable way. 

Take, as an example, one of the most pernicious side effects of traditional construction: large amounts of debris. Annually the construction industry generates a staggering 56 million tons of waste from worldwide construction, which has a detrimental effect on the environment. Since modular construction happens in a factory, a number of projects are built concurrently. Therefore, rather than materials being wasted or discarded, many are able to be reused on different projects at the same factory. 

A modular house
Image courtesy of Wikkelhouse.

Another advantage of modular construction involves its efficient timelines. While shorter timelines are beneficial from a cost standpoint, they also have downstream effects on the environment. Since modular buildings are completed twice as fast on average, they have much lower energy expenditures overall and a lower impact on the area immediately surrounding the construction site. Lower energy expenditures lead in turn to reduced dependence on “dirty” energy, helping propel countries more quickly toward renewables. The reason that modular buildings can be completed twice as fast is not magic: Unlike traditional construction, which can’t start until a building site is prepared, modular construction happens in the factory at the same time the building site is prepared. 

Students seated outside a school
Image courtesy of The American Institute of Architects Top Ten.

Finally, modular construction sites are able to optimize deliveries since everything is coming from a single location, the factory. Overall, modular buildings require 90% fewer site deliveries, with a resulting drop in carbon emissions. Transportation emissions are a huge part of the impact construction has on the environment, so an increase of efficiency in this area has a huge effect on the overall sustainability of the construction industry. 

The Future is Modular

Modular construction tackles a variety of environmental challenges, and modular builders tend to be early adopters for green features that push buildings toward greater sustainability. Features like triple-paned windows, oriented strand board insulation, low-energy lighting, solar panels, and recycled materials are common in modular structures. 

Some modular buildings are great experiments in sustainable building techniques. For example, the Wikkelhouse, designed in the Netherlands, is made entirely of recycled cardboard and has a lifespan of 50 years. High Tech High in Chula Vista, California is a high school that was constructed entirely with modular techniques, built in just 18 months, with 85% of all its energy needs provided by solar panels

Modular appartments stacked up
Image courtesy of Urbanize Los Angeles

Large cities are also beginning to take note, understanding that modular building is an excellent way to handle the housing crisis in a quick, affordable, and sustainable way. Los Angeles, for example, is in the process of several major modular developments, some of which are turning parking lots into affordable housing.

No construction technique is without environmental impacts, but we must continue to push toward greater sustainability in our construction methods. 

Below, view the infographic from BigRentz for a detailed look at the environmental benefits of modular construction

modular construction infographic

Daniel Gray is a writer focused on the environment, construction, and mental health. 

Feature Image courtesy of Prefab Rebiew.