The architect’s role in maximising modular benefits for residential developments
by David de Sousa
Modular and off-site construction is one of the industry’s most talked about topics.
As the housing crisis deepens and the government and developers are tasked with finding a solution, Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) such as modular and off-site are often some of the first answers that come to mind for those looking to provide flexible housing solutions at high volume and quick turnaround.
Perception is key to maintaining support for the continued development of modular and off-site projects. This places architects at the forefront of not only designing high-quality and cost-effective modular homes but also dispelling the myths that surround the concept by integrating new technology and positioning it as a viable and innovative solution for the housing crisis.
Streamlining the process
Modular building requires a radically changed design and build process when compared to traditional methods of construction. The most notable difference being the liaison between manufacturers and architects and the uniquely complex supply chain that this involves.
Building a strong relationship with manufacturers and maintaining a constant line of communication throughout the design, fabrication and transport process is key. Aligning both the architect and manufacturer’s approach through the intelligent application of technology facilitates a manufacturing process that maximises efficiencies, allowing both sides of the process to push the boundaries of design which in turn creates more desirable and affordable homes. Efficiently planned and manufactured homes is the key route to successfully solving the affordable housing shortage, resulting in real affordable social rent levels.
The architect’s role in this process goes beyond simply designing the building itself – it extends to the effective use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and aligning this with the fabrication processes. The RIBA DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) guidelines seek to align this methodology with the RIBA Plan of Works Stages to illustrate how this process can help to streamline and increase the productivity of building homes throughout the manufacturing process. By adopting a streamlined off-site manufacturing process, better quality homes can be manufactured more rapidly at a reduced cost, which also helps to tackle issues around the current skills crisis in the construction industry.
Building modular effectively can provide benefits that have the potential to totally transform the way in which we look at residential development, allowing the industry to work smarter to achieve lofty housing targets.
The implementation of plug-in units adds a level of portability previously unheard of in the property sector. Developments can be constructed in an area of high demand and remain there until the land is required for another use, at which point they can be moved to another area to fulfil the same purpose.
This is of benefit to local authorities and planners looking to create high-density affordable housing with a quick turnaround – which can then be repurposed for another authority in the local area.
Mobility also benefits the construction process once designs are finalised, with the option for manufacturers to develop on-site factories to limit the size of the supply chain required to bring pre-assembled units from production to the intended site. This in turn has a sizeable impact on the carbon footprint of the build and the effort required to bring a project to fruition.
Benefits also extend to the safety of those on-site, removing the need for contractors to construct superstructures on location, instead allowing for work to be carried out in safer factory environments.
Nurture industry talent
It is undeniable that the modular build process requires a new skill set for the property sector. It presents a challenge, firstly in the retention or retraining of traditional construction workers, and secondly in developing a new wave of young talent that can ensure that best practice is consistently observed. This aligns with the government’s strategy to back investment in the creation of new Construction Academies to tackle the industry’s skills crisis as part of the National Retraining Scheme.
Architects must position themselves in the correct markets to influence the development of future talent and ensure that there is an awareness of the opportunities modular presents from both the design and manufacturing side. Communicating this to young people will be essential in helping to avoid a skills shortage and ensuring that the next generation engages with careers in the property sector.
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