What Is Modular Design And Why Is It So Popular?


Like many toddlers growing up, I would often sit for hours at a time enthralled by little wooden building blocks. In a quasi-flow-state, I would arrange and re-arrange them into various shapes and structures, utterly transfixed. A young child, sat with an almost comic intensity of concentration, toiling away at his magnum opus. Whilst I didn’t know it at the time, that approach was actually surprisingly similar to a form of construction today. A discipline known as modular design. In many ways, in fact, modular architectural design is more akin to that simplistic block-building approach of childhood in than it is to the many complex and high-tech practices utilised in architecture, today. The team here at Munday + Cramer, a multi-disciplinary architectural firm based in Essex, looked at this increasingly frequent style of design in a bit more detail.

What Is It?

At its core, modular design revolves around the concept of utilising separate ‘standard’ units, all of which are the same as one another, in repetitive elements, that can be configured in a variety of ways, and easily changed. In other words, it takes the idea of approaching an overall design as an entire system, and that this singular whole is then split down into constituent subsystems, or ‘modules’. These modules are built entirely away from the construction site and then installed once there.

When Was It Conceived?

The idea of modular architectural design has been around for some time now, especially in parts of Scandinavia and Japan. In other locations, by comparison, its popularity has waxed and waned. Now, though, the concept is being more universally accepted as a sustainable and profitable form of design to pursue. The Crystal Palace, designed in 1851 for Britain’s Great Exhibition, was one of the earliest examples of pre-fabricated design.

The earliest example of modularisation, however – which is different to pre-fabrication as we’ll come onto shortly – was introduced by famed American architect (and proud owner of perhaps history’s greatest name) Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s geometrical ‘Dymaxion’ house featured a central space where the amenities were housed, with six modular units fixed around it. These six-identical modules were designed so that homeowners could use each space how they saw fit. It was radical and wildly different from anything that had come before it. Ultimately, however, it was tossed aside by Fuller, who stubbornly refused to compromise on its design when working with contractors.

What’s The Appeal Of Modular Design?

It’s easy to see what’s so attractive about modular architecture. It’s versatile, highly configurable and enables standardisation, which in turn enables cheaper means of manufacture and construction. In fact, according to a 2019 industry report from McKinsey & Company, timelines on modular projects can be accelerated anywhere up to 50% when compared with so-called ‘conventional’ architectural design, a by no means insignificant figure. What’s more, the same report stated that, given the right environment, costs could reduce by 20% by utilising modular principles.

Scalable

A major perk of modular construction is that it enables an immensely broad range of complexity and scalability. You can design and build fully-finished houses using modular principles, or you can concentrate on something as granular as focusing on the single structural units used to construct a home. Whatever the approach, and however complex the architect chooses to go when it comes to the modular system used, the point is that it can be scaled, developed and easily adapted. This kind of flexibility just isn’t afforded in any other form of construction, and as such is immensely appealing.

101 George Tower, London

A fantastic example of this kind of modular design are the two towers of 101 George Street, in London. These residential apartment towers in Croydon are sleek and well-finished. They stand at 135m-high (the same height as the London Eye) and are constructed from over 500 modules. When you consider the build was completed in just 35 weeks (around half the time a traditional skyscraper takes to build), you can begin to understand just how effective modular construction can really be.

What’s The Difference Between A ‘Pre-Fabricated’ And A ‘Modular’ Building?

Though often used interchangeably, and though modular architecture draws on the principles of pre-fabricated philosophy, these are in fact slightly different things. An easy way of remembering it is that all modular buildings are pre-fabricated, but not vice versa.

‘Pre-fabricated’ refers to processes such as panelization, where components of the building are built off-site – a factory, for instance. These are then transported and used to build the property on-site. ‘Modular’ buildings take prefab to its most extreme. When it comes to modularisation, only a very small proportion of the building, its core if you like, is constructed on-site. The ‘modules’ (entirely finished parts of a building – an apartment, for instance, or a hotel room) will be constructed off-site, transported and installed around that central core.

Will We Be Seeing More Modular Architectural Design In The Future?

The most likely answer is yes, we probably will. With an ever-increasing impetus on sustainability and efficiency, as well as a similar increase in housing demand, modular construction potentially answers a lot of problems, moving forward. That’s not to say we’ll be seeing solely modular constructions moving forward, however…

Biggest Obstacles For Modular Construction

As it stands currently, modular construction is not in a position to revolutionise the property industry. At least, not in the way that its proponents would like. The reason for this? Well, it all comes down to the idea of construction continuity. Planning processes will invariably need to be streamlined, moving forward. Especially in order for what is undisputedly one of the discipline’s greatest attractions – its speed – to ever be fully realised. Not only this, but modular construction requires a such a huge degree of logistical organisation and communication, that the way the construction industry is currently geared (i.e. the use of various third-party contractors on any one project) makes modular projects unfeasible a lot of the time.

With all that said, however, this is still very much a form of construction on the rise, so to speak. One which has the potential to be a truly disruptive influence for the real estate market in years to come.

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