Why modular in MMC is on the rise

Nobody can argue that in this day and age, while there is still very much a place for traditional construction methods, we should also be taking a closer look at modular or volumetric buildingespecially as mounting factors such as a shortage of labour puts further pressure on traditional construction.

Modular construction has made huge progress in recent years and the advantages are numerous. It is time to banish the misconception that it has a shorter lifespan and is of poorer quality than traditional construction methods, and to start exploring the various options available and their respective benefits.  

The key advantage of using modular in full or part of a project is that it saves time and reduces construction waste, because modular elements are manufactured to spec in a factory. For investors, the speed of production and assembly means that they present a faster return on investment.  

Once you have decided that volumetric construction is a viable option for your project, it is vital to understand what you are actually buying as not all volumetric systems or manufacturers are equal.  For example an SFS system offers a plug and place solution with the strength of structural streel, but is very difficult to alter post construction, whereas a hot-rolled steel system has greater adaptability.  SIPS panels can be designed and manufactured to have everything in place, from pipes, electrics, windows and finishes before they even leave the factory. Timber frame is an increasingly popular option of choice for certain projects, but is limited by how tall you can make a wooden structure. Then there are modular elements such as bathrooms and kitchens, which can be designed to size and spec and constructed offsite as pods, which will speed up the installation process on site.  

When installed correctly, most modular builds come with high-efficiency heat recovery ventilation systems and superior insulation, which help negate the need for gas and fossil fuels for heating, which reduce household costs and help address the impact on climate change. In addition, better insulation creates a cleaner and more dust and damp-free environment, which will enhance the health and well-being of its occupants. 

The off-site construction process can eliminate unnecessary waste and helps deliver a verifiably sustainable construction process from beginning to end.  Modular’s carbon footprint is further neutralised when the components are produced locally, so that transportation is kept to a minimum.  

It is time to change a previous misconception that modular buildings are boring and limiting and to look more closely at how adaptable they are. A pre-fabricated single occupant modular dwelling can provide a safe and secure living space, with scope to be modified by having additional living space and bedrooms added, to fulfil different housing needs.  Given the social housing shortage, more homes can be provided quickly and cost effectively, with modular being the answer. In fact, entire apartment blocks can be erected relatively easily in appropriate locations.  

Modular construction isn’t only limited to budget housing and student accommodation. Advancements in innovation and technology means that increasing numbers of hotels and luxury homes are being constructed using modular techniques, which enable custom-made designs to fit with exact space and budget requirements limited only by what can be transported. We see this with a luxury home on the coast of Lewis in the outer Hebrides as featured on a recent television series “Build Your Dream Home in the Country”. The house was designed and constructed in a factory in several sections, complete with bespoke and quality fixtures and fittings, and the kitchen and bathrooms already installed, before it was transported and assembled in its chosen location. This negated the costly delays that this area’s harsh weather conditions can have on build projects.  

Airspace is also seeing an increase in modular construction because these can be assembled swiftly with minimal disruption to existing residents. Because they are more lightweight, they won’t compromise the existing structure of the original building, provided that the building has suitable MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing), load and access to lifts and stairs.   

Schools are also more regularly turning to modular construction for expansion/ refurbishment schemes, with research showing that when classrooms are constructed using passive Haus methods, they provide healthier teaching and learning environments, with a reduction of CO2 emissions and space heating by 80%.   

Whatever the purpose, it is still important to ensure that any modular project has the correct team behind it. Good design management from the early stages is essential to avoid costly mistakes. Careful consideration also needs to be given to planning. A common mistake is not factoring in that the modular footprint can be larger than expected due to various components, and a misjudgement of this can cause planning issues.  As a business, we are familiar with all forms of MMC, having provided Architecture and Project and Cost Management services on a large number of schemes.  

Comments Peter Kilby, Director of Project and Cost Management at rpa:group, “The lead time for modular can be quite long, but build time on-site tends to be faster and although modular cost can be higher, site duration is lower so savings can be made here. One needs to consider that once a modular design is signed off, further design changes can be expensive and time consuming and are not always possible. Therefore, it is important to have someone in place such as a reliable project manager, to ensure that the advantages of modular pays off and that no avoidable costs are incurred.” 

Annie Ky, Senior Architect agrees. “With modular construction, there are challenges to overcome such as space and logistics and licensing. All the design work needs to be carried out up front with details such as the location of sockets and accessories decided in advance.” She adds that lead consultants, M&E and Structural engineers should be appointed to work collaboratively on a project, to ensure a successful outcome and highlights a current architecture project that rpa:group is undertaking. “A former petrol station in London’s Southwark has been demolished to make way for the construction of 24 new homes and three retail units. The scheme has a hybrid construction, utilising modular elements from pre-cast concrete. Although the initial design and manufacture phase was more time consuming, this method is really speeding up the actual construction process onsite.”  

Ben Foran from MY Construction Group, which owns MY-Fab, a specialist volumetric and MMC manufacturing business, highlights the importance of visiting  manufacturers’ factories, assessing their quality control procedures, and finding out about their warranties and procedures if something should go wrong. Other information to get clarity on includes finding out what technical and financial backing they have and what control a client will have over the manufacturing process, as well as whether the design and coordination of the manufacturing elements will work with on-site construction works? Comments Ben “MMC has multiple benefits, including the potential to give you better quality, higher performing buildings, shorter construction programmes plus reduced construction waste and an overall lower carbon footprint.  But none of these is a given, so spend some time working out not just the build methodology, but really get under the skin of your construction partners.“  

While modular construction is not necessarily new to the UK, uptake has still been  slower than in other parts of the world. However, a surge in investment by large financial backers such as Goldman Sachs has resulted in accelerated UK growth. This is helping to make it more commercially viable, driving further innovation and is helping to make modular construction fast become more mainstream with an exciting future ahead. 


If you need our help with your next project, please get in touch with Sasha Fraser at s.fraser@therpagroup.com or visit www.therpagroup.com 

Ben Foran from MY Construction Group can be reached at benf@myconstruction.co.uk or visit www.my-fab.co.uk 

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