In the past few weeks, the UK government have set out their post-coronavirus recovery plan and corresponding ‘energy-efficiency’ plan, promising to invest heavily in building homes and infrastructure and improving the energy efficiency of residential and public-sector buildings. But whilst their rallying cries of “build, build, build” are full of hope and promise, how can we look to achieve it all affordably, sustainably and quickly? Modular construction could hold some of the answers.
Often referred to as a modern method of construction (MMC), modular construction involves the use of building components, or modules, that are constructed off-site in a factory setting before being transported to site for assembly. It is estimated that only around 10% of UK homes are currently built using MMCs. Although this figure was already on the rise, there are signs that the growth of modular construction might be accelerated significantly by COVID-19, as it could play a vital role in the UK government’s delivery of their pandemic recovery pledges. In fact, it’s already happening in some sectors: just last week, the National Health Service began seeking suppliers for their new £300m procurement framework for ‘the provision of modular/pre-fabricated modular buildings solutions’. So why modular?
As a building method, modular construction is generally faster: modules can be constructed in the factory whilst groundworks and preparations are still progressing on-site, and assembly is usually straightforward and necessitates less workforce on site. Last year, we provided advice for the world’s tallest modular tower in Croydon which, at 44 stories tall, had a projected build time of just 26 months – almost half of what it would have taken to construct it conventionally. The ability to build rapidly will be important if we are to recover quickly from the post-COVID downturn.
As well as the time savings, build costs have also been shown to be up to 40% cheaper using modular construction than traditional methods, which could help to alleviate another headache for the government. With an existing backlog of c. £6.5bn already needed to fix problems in NHS buildings and only £1.5bn pledged in the new recovery plan for hospital construction and improvement, it’s a tough ask and cutting construction costs will be vital.
Alongside the potential time and cost savings, modular buildings can also be ‘greener’. Faster construction means the environmental impacts of the construction site itself (fuel usage, electricity etc.) continue for less time. Furthermore, modules now often incorporate eco-friendly building materials and tend to produce less waste due to being constructed in a highly-controlled factory environment. All of these aspects have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of construction projects, which could align well with the energy-efficiency commitments set out by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Like any construction method, modular construction does have its drawbacks (limited scope for customisation, for example); but time savings, cost reductions and potential ‘eco’ benefits mean that it could play a vital role in fulfilling the UK government’s coronavirus recovery commitments.