modular mania – an architectural affair

In the face of a crap-tastic economy many architects, developers, builders and even homeowners are looking for ways to save money on construction costs, increase energy and material efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to construct and finish a building.  With this trend of getting a bigger “bang for your buck” is coming a reintroduction of “modular” construction techniques and is causing what I like to call Modular Mania.  Just recently I read no less than 3 articles on modular construction and even doing a basic search on the ever-expanding world wide web will yield 10s of thousands of results for modular products.  And not just houses.  The term “modular” is really starting to take over life as we know it.  Dwindling are the days of “custom” craftsmanship or “made to order”.  Today everything from storage canisters to silverware to furniture to built-in casework – it’s all turning modular.

How do we as architects feel about this?  I’m sure you can guess my point of view, being such a big fan of cargotecture.  But does it help or hinder the profession?  Is there room for modular AND custom architecture?  Can modular BE custom?  Has a scarcity of financing and materials driven us to a point where architecture is evolving into a product rather than a skill or profession?  These are the kinds of questions that rattle through my head late at night while I try to count the swirls in my ceiling.

So what is modular and how does it help us?  Well, quite simply modular construction is no different than conventional construction other than all major building components (walls, doors, windows, insulation, wall finish, cabinets and fixtures) are assembled and fabricated off-site in a controlled environment which makes for less construction waste and less delays due to weather or site access.  The building is constructed in transportable “modules” and then shipped to the site, typically via truck, for final assembly and finish.

modular building being assembled on site -

As you can imagine, from the image above, on site construction time is seriously minimized.  And this is where real savings starts to come in.  Because, under the traditional construction model you have a massive coordination of trades, suppliers, fabricators, engineers, work crews….it’s an insane mess at the best of times and complete anarchy at the worst of times.  And you’ve got to wait on everything and everyone.  The foundation guy has to wait on the grading guy, the plumbing guy has to wait on the foundation guy, then they have to wait on each other, and the framer is sitting in a bar somewhere downing Shirley Temples watching “the game” cause he’s gotta wait for all these guys to do their thing, blah blah blah.  All that wasted time equals wasted money.

BUT with modular construction two things can happen simultaneously – site/foundation work and building construction.  With a properly coordinated and permitted set of drawings all of the site preparation can happen WHILE the building is being constructed offsite.  Then, once both pieces are complete and the foundations are ready to receive the load, the building is delivered, like a puzzle, and pieced together in as little as a day.  So instead of 6 weeks for site/foundation work and 1 week for plumbing/electrical rough-in and 8 weeks for framing and 2 weeks for sheathing and waterproofing and 3 weeks for insulation and drywall etc etc etc, we get to do all the necessary site prep while the building is being shop fabricated.  We’re effectively cutting our overall construction time in half.  I don’t know about you but I like the sound of that.

Now that we’ve all got warm fuzzies about the modular construction process, is there room for modular AND custom architecture, and can modular BE custom?

The obvious answer is “pfft, well, YEAH!”

Richard Meier has been designing “modular” buildings his entire career.  He’s obsessed with the “module”, which is nothing more than a principle of proportion in design.  Just because we are designing a building to be modular does not mean it has to be “standard” (images of huge residential tract developments are swirling around in your head right now aren’t they?).  A modular home can be custom designed for a specific site and a specific client – and in my opinion should be.

As with any other technology, new or old, modular design and construction are just another set of tools in the architectural arsenal of modern building and design.  By decreasing the time and frustration required during construction and the coordination of the various trades to such a nth degree, we free ourselves up to spend just a bit more time ensuring that our buildings are properly designed and detailed to provide the client with a more efficient, more useful and more beautiful building.

In my opinion, modular is here to stay, economic turmoil or no economic turmoil, and combined with IPD (Integrated Project Deliver)….well, now we’re approaching architecture and construction on crack! Ain’t no stoppin us baby! 🙂  But that’s another story for another time.


2 thoughts on “modular mania – an architectural affair

  1. Interesting article, I have been working with modular for some time now. Ever since we were trying to work around the skyrocketing cast of stick built construction during the post 2006 bubble years and still offer a high quality house that met the coastal wind loads (when I was still home in FL – now in MD and starting it all back up). I switched to modular as a conceptual construction delivery method (which as you mentioned cut down on the on-site construction time) also for a response to the ever popping up cookie cutter developments in effort to curtail the typical builder home crap that litters our landscape. I thought (and still think) that is there is a way to approach home building as a design/build package, that we can control the quality of design, sustainability, construction debris(disturbance) and so on…there are a lot of pluses to building modular. see a custom mod I did in the panhandle of Florida – – it was built in 45 days (including foundation, site construction and factory construction), and exceeds the wind speeds for Miami/Dade area (even though it was in the Seaside area) and exceeded the LEED for homes standards (thought we never really felt there was a need to pursue LEED).

    My current online portfolio contains several different architectural responses to modular “style” with very similar modules, plans and box sizes – – the modular (modern) house I am working on now is under construction – I’ll post more images later, is a replacement home where the old house is being recycled and parts and pieces donated.

    The biggest issue Modular will have in the coming years, and I sense it in your article is the “modular stigma” – the “what makes this different from a trailer?” in which I spend most of my time talking to a client on why modular does NOT change the architectural process, but gives a greater control for the quality of the construction and the increase in energy efficiency.

    Again, thanks for the article, we need more dialog on the subject so that we get beyond the “stigma”

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