I like the idea of modular construction.
Building blocks mass-produced in a facility and assembled together like the copious Lego semi-finished assemblies that clutter my children’s dressers, floors, and desks. Complete rooms or floors of offices, hotels or homes, set up as a plug-and-play solution. Prewired, pre-plumbed and ready to easily attach, click-click-click, like their colorful toy counterparts; creating a quick, more economical alternative to the almost linear feeling of construction processes today.
The Problem With Modular Construction
I like this in theory, and the economics of it make sense, but where I see a problem is when it comes to occupant and environmental health. Most of the pro-modular building arguments are related to speed, efficiency and cost. But what about the people that have to live in the building? Are they comfortable? What about the impact on the environment? I am not saying there is no case for these arguments, I just don’t see them woven into the general dialogue about modular building.
While modular construction is a trend, so are healthy buildings. They should intersect. And I don’t mean some spin doctor version explaining why it is OK to deplete natural resources because they come from the earth, that story is antiquated and bogus. What I am referring to is a modular construction company that is building sustainably and using better materials more responsibly.
The concept of modular construction, based on the coverage available, including articles that I have read, and videos I have watched, focus on wood panel construction, plywood, OSB, joists and two by fours all coming together magically in super-sized factories. This has further evolved into high rises, hotels and apartment buildings being constructed a floor at a time, clad in metal and glass as well.
Healthy building v. Modular Building
Healthy building is the domain of the thoughtful architecture and design firms, requiring materials suppliers to provide transparency and make their products better and safer for the people in the space. They are designing spaces that make people more productive, are more inviting, engaging, encouraging movement, interaction, and well-being.
These concepts reside in different domains. The domain of the production builder, or modular construction, and that of the stewards, the architects, and designers. It is not that the two domains are unable to intersect, rather that they do not today.
Bridging the Gap Between Modular and Health
We believe that modular construction must consider the materials that it uses. We think that building more efficiently and faster is not enough. It is not enough to make it better for the owner. To truly create better, you must build for the occupant and planet.
We believe you must tell a story. We built this really fast does not appeal to the tenant or occupant. The ability to engage with materials that tell the story and show your stewardship is the key to building better and engaging building occupants.
All too often, buildings have state of the art HVAC systems, and solar and water reclamation systems that are hidden behind the walls. It is like a book with blank pages. You need those interior materials with recycled content, or made in the USA, or made locally, to really tell the story of the efforts you put into the project.
What’s the story?
We believe it is all about the story. Where did this material come from? What is it? Why did you use it? That ability to connect the occupant to the goals and the building is how you create better.
We're not the only ones who feel this way. Innovators in the modular space, like DIRTT Environmental Solutions and Hygge Supply are approaching the modular, prefabricated home with sustainability and circularity in mind.
Modular construction is here to stay, no doubt, but will it remain relegated to the cookie-cutter design space. Will it be limited to Duplo size creativity, or will it embrace the finer aspects of sustainability and health allowing for the customizations and innovations of its more versatile Lego counterpart?
What do you think of modular construction? Share your thoughts below or shoot us a message. We'd love to have a conversation.