Construction Cost & Project Management

Time to get moving on modular

May 18, 2018

(Post by David Aldred, Andy Bayley and Andrew Thorp)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, and a man known for nifty turns of phrase like “less is more” and “God is in the details”, was also heard to say, “the construction industry needs to industrialise in order to progress.” This quote is from the 1940’s and it’s reasonable to ask why so little has changed since.

Over 70 years later and we still build from the same bricks and mortar, we still rely on skilled tradespeople (of which there are too few) and we cling on to the same inefficient methods of construction. This is despite the alarming housing crisis currently engulfing the UK and the ready availability of technologies successfully applied in the likes of the automotive industry.

Why haven’t we heeded Lugwig’s advice?

Andy Bayley and I went in search of answers (and potential solutions) by attending the Modular Building Conference hosted recently by Salford University.

The answer, it seems, is rather simple – it’s all down to culture.

There’s a saying that culture trumps all and that’s certainly the case with UK construction. Salford’s academics put it bluntly: “We’re obsessed with bricks & mortar and view anything else as inferior.”

The challenge for our industry is to change people’s perception of the modular approach. We must remove the stigma of ‘prefab’ by emphasising its benefits as a sustainable method of construction rather than a cheap alternative. Modular could potentially be more cost-effective, faster and of higher quality than traditional methods. Just look at the automobile industry.

If you’d bought a Mazda Mx5 when it was first launched in 1989 it would have set you back a hefty £14,000. The equivalent 2017 model had a price tag of £18,000. Thus customers could benefit from 30 years’ worth of technological progress, with massive improvements in comfort, performance, build quality and added value items like SatNav – all for just £4,000 more than the original.

This was made possible through industrialisation and investment in R&D; so imagine how much progress could be made in building efficiency if the same approach were applied to modular construction.

Clearly, there are other issues holding back progress – standardisation and collaboration, planning, volume, flexibility and adaptability. But perception is the major hurdle in what has always been a somewhat conservative industry.

Perhaps hope lies with the so-called ‘millennials’, a generation weaned on rapid technological advances who feel comfortable disrupting the status quo. They might be the ones who prove old Ludwig was right after all!