Modular building isn’t a new concept, but it has only recently begun to surge in popularity among commercial construction projects. As inflation, labor shortages and supply chain constraints become more significant problems, more contractors are switching to modular building.
What makes this unique construction method so effective for commercial projects? What are the benefits? How can contractors leverage it to address the construction industry's three major problems?
Modular Buildings on the Rise
Modular building has quickly become the new normal in residential and commercial construction. It accounted for 5.5% of all projects in 2021, which was an all-time high. This construction method has been vital in addressing the housing crisis in the United States, providing a fast and efficient way to build single-family homes, apartment complexes and low-income housing.
While modular building’s residential impact has been impressive, it has tremendous potential in the commercial arena. Commercial projects usually take much longer and require more materials than the average home project, which means there are more opportunities for damage and delays. That’s where modular construction comes in.
Instead of coordinating the entire project on-site, commercial contractors can build smaller modules off-site in their warehouses. Once these prefabricated parts are finished, the workers ship them to the site and assemble them. This method requires less time, labor and resources than traditional construction.
Benefits of Modular Commercial Building
Speed and efficiency are the most important benefits of modular building — it completes projects 20% to 50% faster than other methods while saving up to 14% of the project’s costs. These factors alone should be convincing enough for commercial contractors to make the switch, but the benefits don’t stop there.
1. Safer Working Conditions
Modular building also provides employees with safer working conditions. It’s no secret that construction is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, so improving workplace safety is a significant priority. Instead of working outdoors in unpredictable weather conditions, employees can stay inside and do their jobs in a controlled environment.
Traditionally, construction crews had to anticipate extreme weather and plan for delays. Creating weather hazard checklists and securing worksites before a big storm rolled in was crucial. With modular building, the project can continue as scheduled because weather is a non-factor — all the prefabrication takes place indoors.
Modular building also makes construction safer by mitigating security threats such as theft and vandalism. With everything inside a monitored warehouse, project managers don’t have to worry about people trespassing on the site and tampering with the building’s modules.
2. Lower Labor Costs
The construction industry is short by about 650,000 workers in the United States alone. With traditional methods, there aren’t enough hands to complete commercial projects on time. Modular building increases productivity with fewer workers by speeding up the design and manufacturing process, eliminating delays and automating certain tasks with construction robots.
Robotics play a considerable role in the success of modular building, as they can compensate for the thousands of missing workers by proficiently completing essential jobs like welding, bricklaying and operating heavy machinery. These robots can work without restrictions or damage from severe weather in a warehouse as opposed to an outdoor worksite.
A modular approach also eliminates delays and deficiencies caused by unproductive sites. Commercial projects have many moving parts and often have too many obstructions for workers to operate equipment and move materials safely. Building bits and pieces of the main structure in another location keeps the primary worksite organized and helps employees do their jobs.
Modular building also has impressive environmental benefits. According to a 2021 study from the University of New South Wales, the average modular project generates 83.2% less waste, while larger-scale commercial projects generate 47.9% less waste overall. This massive trash reduction is largely because the materials used to build modular buildings suffer less damage caused by human error, extreme weather and other threats.
Another way modular building helps the environment is by reducing material deliveries by up to 90%, thereby reducing the project’s carbon footprint. While the construction industry has been notoriously wasteful for decades, modular building gets the most out of each project’s limited resources.
Modular Building Is Still Evolving
Although modular construction in the commercial sector has shown great promise, it’s still in its infancy. It’s also not immune to the other problems facing the construction industry, such as limited material suppliers and high transportation costs. The government also needs to catch up, as many states are still passing laws and regulations for upcoming modular projects. These legal deliberations could result in delays.
Contractors will also have to adjust to new transportation challenges. For example, they need to learn how to stack prefabricated units properly so they don’t collapse on their way to the site. They must also consider narrow roads, traffic jams, bridges and other obstacles.
Modular Building Is Here to Stay
The construction industry needs a significant overhaul to address the issues of inflation, labor shortages and supply chain stagnation. Modular building appears to be the solution. Contractors will inevitably encounter some challenges in implementing a modular approach, but these are necessary steps to get the industry back on track.