According to the UK Green Building Council, the UK construction industry uses around 400 million tonnes of materials every year. New eco-friendly building techniques such as modular construction have been predicted to play a key role in helping the sector reduce its carbon footprint and improve its sustainability credentials.

With a new report, Deploying Modular Housing in the UK, urging the government to embrace modular construction and modern methods of construction (MMC), we have a look at how modular can help shape a more sustainable future.

Modular construction has made headlines and received universal acclaim for bringing much-needed medical facilities onstream in record time in the past year, shining a light on the modular sector and initiating a shift to off-site technology, which has slowly gained prominence in the construction industry.

The volumetric modular approaches have been revolutionary and helped reduce build times by around 50 to 60 per cent, while also increasing quality, productivity, and safety.

But these are not the only benefits, as in an industry where annual construction waste is expected to reach 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025, modular construction provides a solution for helping reduce landfill waste.

The offsite factory settings for modular manufacture allow better control for optimising materials use, and surplus materials are recycled or reused for future projects, significantly reducing construction waste.

Off-site construction means that materials are protected from moisture and extreme weather conditions, which reduces the risk of water ingress and damage.

It is known that modular construction can potentially reduce construction waste, but it is not often known that it can reduce up to 90 per cent of the waste generated by traditional construction methods.

A key advantage of modular construction is the quality benefits that come from working in a controlled factory environment. By producing buildings in a factory setting, the quality of elements such as insulation can be better assured.

Digitally connecting teams

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) protocols and Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology allows for the optimal configuration of modular solutions by digitally connecting multi-discipline teams right from the very start of concept design through to the development process and beyond.

DfMA means that modular buildings are designed to be manufactured off-site and to be assembled on-site, and BIM minimises the risk of errors by eliminating the time-consuming process of translating engineering information into cutting lists and assembly drawings.

The designs for modular buildings are digitally constructed and virtually tested before the manufacturing phase, which again eliminates error and waste, and help to achieve highly acquire and airtight building envelopes that are designed to meet sustainability requirements such as BREEAM and Passivhaus standards.

Eco-friendly sustainability gains

Not only is modular construction greener, but the modules themselves are also more energy-efficient, and reduce heating requirements and in-use carbon emissions for the lifetime of the completed building.

Off-site factory manufacture means it is easier to manage energy use than on an open construction site. On average, 67 per cent less energy is required to produce a modular building, and 50 per cent less time is spent on-site compared to traditional methods, resulting in 90 per cent fewer vehicle movements, which is better for the environment and the local community.

Modular technology brings a host of benefits to the construction industry, contributing to healthier, safer and more cost-efficient environments but often the sustainability gains are overlooked.

The ‘Deploying Modular Housing in the UK’ report, the result of work between Places for People and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research, outlines a joint vision for viably accelerating the use of modular construction in the UK.

It makes a range of recommendations and calls for the government to provide support through grants and subsidies for developers using modular technologies, through planning policy initiatives.

It also calls for industry standards and warranties similar to traditional builds, to ‘provide certainty and confidence’ not only for housebuilders but for end-users and traditional lenders.

The report suggests that the systematic data capture and evidence collection by housebuilders to help created a strong portfolio of evidence of the benefits of off-site housing construction and MMC, would help combat consumers’ mistrust, overcome risk aversion, and help boost confidence among lenders.

The report also addresses the skills shortage in the UK sector, with traditional and modular building skills varying greatly.

Innovation champions

It is also recommended in the report to develop ‘innovation champions’ among housebuilders and developers, recognising individuals and organisations who actively use modulate and off-site approaches and MMC, to help boost their efforts and promote the benefits of MMC

Other recommendations include proposals for the standardisation of materials and having a ‘kit of parts’ to be used across the industry by different.

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