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Building the future piece by piece

How modular construction is conquering the world of architecture

As every professional in the building industry knows, construction can be a costly and endlessly time-consuming endeavour. Delays are almost more frequent than on-time construction projects. Thankfully, there is a solution that can shorten build times and offers many other advantages: modular construction.

Modular architecture (Photo: Simon Goetz on Unsplash)

Flexible, convenient and eco-friendly: Modular architecture isn’t just a visual innovation – it represents a revolution in the construction process. (Poto: Simon Goetz on Unsplash)

What makes modular construction so special

From a historical perspective, modular architecture goes as far back as ancient Egypt: Already in this early period, individual blocks were used to build the pyramids. From the first preassembled wooden houses in 12th-century Japan and Leonardo da Vinci’s prefabricated house, Casa mutabile, to the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo and the classic 1970s concrete-slab buildings in Germany, modular construction has been a constant presence in architecture and continues to unfold its innovative power.

In modular construction, individual building segments, known as modules, are produced in an external, controlled factory setting and then assembled at the final site. Unlike a prefabricated building, modular construction involves the prefabrication of entire volumetric units, which are then assembled. It therefore goes far beyond the building shell. Even work that would otherwise have to be done on-site can be completed in the factory, including the insulation, wiring and plumbing. This type of prefabricated construction enables better control of the construction process far away from the influence of the elements and other potentially damaging factors. This creates greater certainty and more convenience – not to mention making the process more precise and easier to inspect and control.

Der Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokio

Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower was built in 1972, making it among the earliest modern modular housing developments. (Photo: Dariam Shamkali on Unsplash)

The benefits of modular architecture

It’s been growing in importance for years now, and yet it still seems as if modular architecture still hasn’t fully established itself in the construction industry. But gradually, modular architecture is beginning to catch on because its benefits are clear:

  • Cost and time certainty

Compared to other types of construction, there isn’t a significant difference in the investment required. But when it comes to cost and time certainty, modular construction is much more attractive. Thanks to stable working conditions in the production halls, the work in progress is not exposed to the elements and can be completed on schedule without any interruptions.

  • Individual adaptations

This type of construction system enables changes and additions, thereby expanding the opportunities for individual design even at an advanced stage in the project or after completion of the work. What is an office today can be a nursery tomorrow and then a home the next day with the aid of add-on modules.

  • Short build times

With modular construction, it’s possible to complete all the required steps before the actual construction of the building can begin while the modules are being manufactured. This makes the construction process faster, and hence build times are shorter than on a traditional site.

  • Interchangeable elements

As the building is assembled from individual modules, they can be maintained separately, and damaged parts can be easily replaced. Even repairs don’t involve laborious work on-site or setbacks.

  • Easy transportation

Transporting the modules is simple because it’s a case of moving individual parts. This means it’s possible to build in places where traditional construction would be more complicated.

Sustainable architecture in modular construction

Alongside the time and cost factors, modular construction is good for the environment and conserves limited resources. Buildings manufactured in factories generate much less waste because production waste can be recycled directly and reused. Once assembled, all the modules can be removed individually for repairs and reinstalled. If a component can no longer be reworked, there is the option to break it down into its individual parts at the production site and recycle the material for use on new construction projects. Compared to traditional housebuilding, considerably less raw materials and energy are therefore required, making architecture more sustainable – very much in line with the huge megatrend .

Design of a modular building with greenery

Studio Precht is creating a visionary approach for tomorrow’s modular construction with its Farmhouse. (Photo: Studio Precht)

Modular architecture benefits society

A glance at the property market reveals that, despite the construction boom, Germany has a housing shortage. In 2020, the number of homes completed was at a level unseen for almost 20 years. The sad news is that even this isn’t enough. Almost 1.5 million housing units need to be built in Germany by 2025 to meet the demand. The lack of affordable homes and social housing is especially intense in the major cities. Modular buildings could be a remedy for this problem. Even if the actual investment costs aren’t necessarily lower than with traditional construction, time is often a significant factor on large-scale projects such as multifamily properties or social housing. Prefabrication under stable conditions means that housing units can be completed considerably faster and simply assembled at the designated site.

In addition to homes, modular architecture could make the construction of public buildings such as schools, nurseries, hospitals and nursing homes more efficient. Construction work in public buildings poses significant challenges for the operators: Patients and residents may need to be transferred, or they could be forced to move out; children have to be allocated places at neighbouring nurseries. In the worst-case scenario, buildings have to close indefinitely. And even if these situations don’t arise, the noise from a traditional construction site is a considerable nuisance in the local area. Modular construction in the production hall removes all these disrupting factors and obstacles. Extensions or upgrades can be undertaken flexibly. Renovation work is also easier: Each module of the entire building can be repaired or rebuilt in the factory. This reduces the work on-site to merely replacing individual parts.

The future of architecture: modular and sustainable

There is hardly any other type of construction that fits the spirit of the times as well as modular construction does. Costs and quality can be planned precisely and scaled and controlled more easily. The production process and the resulting benefits make modular construction more convenient and more sustainable than traditional construction. Whether it’s a private project to build a single-family home or a public sector construction contract, modular construction has immense promise, and it will continue to unfold its potential in the industry.

Trends like sustainability and the smart home are transforming the construction and interior design industry. Stay up to date with all the key developments with the magazine by imm cologne newsletter. Subscribe here now .