Modular Construction Hits the Big Time But Has Historic Roots

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Rob Wells

Builders chatter about modular construction, particularly over the past few years. Even Warren Buffet entered the market with an ambitious venture into the technology. A new report projects modular construction to be worth $114 billion by 2028.

Most people think of modular construction as small scale and utilitarian. Shipping containers or other similar boxy and boring cubes make up most of these projects. More elegant options exist.

A Chinese construction company recently built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made from 2,736 rectangular modules. They managed to finish construction in a staggering 19 days—that's three stories a day.

Other modular evangelists discuss the technology's flexibility. Modular building offers more portable and less wasteful options than other traditional methods.

These advocates point out the legacy of modular construction. As early as 1624, American fishermen commissioned a company to build a structure in England and ship it in its component walls and timbers so that workers could quickly assemble it in the New World at the village of Cap Anne; this carried on through the 20th century. Between 1908 and 1940, the Sears catalog sold more than 70,000 kit homes—some models costing as little as $160.

By 1958, prefabricated structures made up at least 10% of all United States homes before the craze fizzled.

"Building anything over ten stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."

Consulting group McKinsey and Company recognize a change in the offing. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular construction proposition. For instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics, consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."

The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mindset among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."

Either way, the numbers speak for themselves. Perhaps we're in a boom for prefabricated construction as in the 30s through 50s. Opinions vary. But for now, modular building remains an intriguing prospect.

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