Prefabricated modular construction for commercial buildings, both high and low-rise, is gaining popularity around the world. The speed with which ‘offsite high-rises’ are sprouting can’t yet be described as a gallop, but it is gathering momentum and attention.
Key issues that come into play when scaling the heights include construction methods, wind loads, logistics and fire safety. The key drivers for prefabricated growth in the sector are speed to completion, government initiatives, environmental concern, skilled labour shortages and improved technology to overcome the issues and build within congested spaces.
Speed to Complete
Prefabrication construction is particularly ideal for quick building purposes during emergency situations where time is very limited. For instance, China built a 1000-bed emergency coronavirus hospital with modular construction in just 10 days in 2020!
Mid-rise prefabricated, off-site timber construction has been extensive in Europe, America, and Canada over the past decade, and they clearly demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and quality of these off-site construction systems. The McKinsey Report “Modular construction: From projects to products” June 2019, shows that this is also the case for mid-rise timber buildings constructed in Australia since the National Construction Code, Volume One (NCC), Building Code of Australia (BCA), was amended in 2016 to allow the use of timber construction systems for apartments, hotel type buildings and offices up to 25 metres in effective height.
Government initiatives to reduce waste and promote green construction and building techniques are increasingly common around the world. For example, Singapore has mandated elements of prefabricated, pre-finished, and volumetric construction (PPVC) for all the projects on the government’s land. This is backed by subsidies for companies that participate with the aim of increasing and standardising modern methods of construction in the country, thereby increasing the demand for off-site construction.
Green building is a popular concept that adopts environmentally friendly measures from pre-construction planning up to project closure and occupancy. Green buildings optimise energy and resources, reduce waste during construction and enable buildings to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Various certifications qualify buildings as green or sustainable depending on the above-mentioned parameters.
Prefabricated construction has gained widespread attraction as a model of sustainable development across North America and Scandinavia.
Skilled Labour Shortages
Many factors determine whether a given market is likely to embrace modular construction and two big determinants are real-estate demand and the availability (and relative costs) of skilled construction labour. In places such as Australia’s East Coast, Germany’s major cities, the southern part of the United Kingdom, and the US West Coast, labour shortages and large-scale unmet demand for housing intersect, making this model particularly relevant. The McKinsey report, “Modular construction: From projects to products” June 2019, indicates these global labour shortages are driving the expansion of off-site modular builds.
Construction continues to be one of the most labour-intensive industries. It includes many repetitive and time-consuming tasks which can be done faster and more accurately through robotics and automation. Autonomous machines and software can be used for cutting materials, transporting materials, and identifying risk factors. For instance, cranes used by Tasbuilt are equipped with software packages for making human supervision minimal during the process of placing the prefabricated modules. The software also includes location tracking, automated movements, and signal transmission for increasing productivity.
Building planning and design is a collaborative process that requires inputs from multiple stakeholders including engineers, architects, builders, and clients, among others. With the traditional method, it is difficult to visualise changes in real time as everyone works on their unique files. This results in generating multiple versions of the same plan and causes confusion.
Advanced Building Information Modelling (BIM) tools solve this problem by providing a central database and enabling everyone to work on a single shared model. BIM can help minimise the risks associated with data interpretation, identify variances in design revisions, provide cost and time overlays, and improve the accuracy of estimating of both materials required and energy efficiency of the building. The ultimate result is that BIM saves time and money.
Construction cloud collaboration is another trend driving prefabricated commercial construction. Creating structured workflows and integrating data at each step of construction work ensures the availability of the right information to each stakeholder.
Tasbuilt uses industry-specific, cloud-based software that provides relevant tools that different teams can access when required. For instance, the subcontractors such as electricians and plumbers have works orders issued and can feedback on their material needs and timelines to others working on the build. Project managers can share images of the build with clients, and issues with trades and all of the relevant documentation for the stage of the build is available to those who need them at the right time in one accessible location.
This collaboration reduces costs, project timelines, and conflict. The cloud is also real-time, and responsive, and data can be shared without compromising on security.
Limited space to build
A modern example of bringing all these drivers together is Cambridge Mosque in the UK completed in 2018. Significant restrictions in available space on the construction site meant there was no possibility to store any of the components as the site is in central Cambridge. Up to ten production facilities were active simultaneously to produce the components.
The multi-award-winning Mosque features a gold-clad dome and vast timber structure designed and manufactured by BlumerLehmann AG in Gossau, Switzerland. The Mosque incorporates many sustainable features with zero onsite carbon emissions, natural light and ventilation, the building fabric has ultra-low U-values and airtight construction to minimise energy need, rainwater harvesting feeds the WCs and garden, rooftop solar and air source heat pumps supply a portion of the power and heating.
The structure itself is a masterpiece of timber construction engineering to complement the sustainable construction concept. The use of double-curved laminated timber for a building of this kind is unique. Every individual element of the timber structure was produced in Switzerland, using state-of-the-art CNC machinery and CAD technology. The definition of building geometry came from the 3D development of an Islamic pattern that fused English fan vaulting with sacred Islamic principles.
The diversity of elements required precise coordination of production, assembly and logistics. All timber components arrived at the construction site like a giant puzzle travelling almost 1,500 km on their seven-day journey from Switzerland to Cambridge. By prefabricating the free-form parts and assembling them with the help of a template in a pre-assembly tent, work was completed safely, quickly and assembled at perfect working height in a weather-protected environment. When the team from Blumer-Lehmann completed its construction work in late 2018, a total of 80 truckloads with almost 3,800 individual structural elements had made the trip by road and sea and been assembled on site.
Tolerances of less than one millimetre were achieved, which is truly unique and a real testament to the perfect teamwork across teams and countries from start to finish.
The acceptance and take up of prefabricated commercial and residential construction still have a long way to go and innovation in the industry is constant. If you would like to explore how Tasbuilt’s modern building methods can help you achieve a faster, greener and custom build, reach out to our consultants on 1800 639 310.