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Homes from the factory. Is modular construction the future of architecture?

14 of September '23

The article is from A&B issue 7-8|23

Among many architects, the term "house factories" evokes ambivalent feelings and associations with big-box apartment blocks. Meanwhile, the prefabrication of buildings or their components may be the answer to the challenges that the modern world poses to architecture. We talk about saving time and energy, reducing our carbon footprint and whether we will become a "second Scandinavia" with representatives of Unihouse and Qmodular, which specialize in modular construction.

Modular construction is, in a nutshell, construction based on spatial modules made in the factory floor and assembled on site. The idea itself is actually nothing new. The origins of prefabrication (and using concrete!) can be traced back to ancient Rome, and the real flowering of the technology came in the 19th century. With the development of industry and the popularization of new technologies, as well as the growing demand for low-cost houses, the number of realizations based on modular solutions grew. It was then that portable wooden houses, which we can consider the ancestors of today's "modulars," first began to be produced on a large scale.

In the 20th century, the widespread fascination among modernists with industrial production contributed to the development of prefabrication in construction. Progressive architects, led by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, saw new possibilities in it. "Big industry must get involved in construction and implement mass production of the components of the house," - wrote the pope of modernism in the pages of "Toward Architecture." The second half of the century severely strained faith in the miraculous power of prefabrication. While it gained immense popularity, the results, especially in the countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc, left much to be desired. Just look at Poland, where "house factories" for a long time became synonymous with the worst in architecture. Fortunately, modern architects are looking more and more favorably toward prefabrication and modular construction. New, much improved technologies and materials are expected to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Budownictwo modułowe to nie tylko małe kubatury; z prefabrykowanych elementów powstają także duże zespoły mieszkalne, takie jak HeimdalSporten w norweskim Trondheim

Modular construction is not only about small volumes; large residential complexes, such as HeimdalSporten in Trondheim, Norway, are also being built from prefabricated elements

Photo: © Unihouse

Two types of modular buildings should be distinguished: temporary buildings and Permanent Modular Construction (PMC). While in the case of the former, "ad hocness" is, so to speak, an overriding value, the latter are intended to serve users for just as long as buildings erected using traditional methods. Unihouse, a giant in the modular construction market, stresses that the durability of its proposed solutions is similar to that of traditional construction, reaching fifty years and more. However, it is worth remembering that this does not necessarily mean that the building will stand in one location for all that time. Flexibility, also understood as the ability to move the "modules" to another location, opens up many possibilities for investors and seems to be one of the biggest advantages of modular construction.
in search of savings

Błażej Ciarkowski:What features of modular construction can make it competitive with traditional solutions?

Jacek Grzybowski, Commercial Director, Member of the Board of Directors, Unihouse: First of all, building with modules allows faster implementation of the project. Modules are manufactured and comprehensively finished in the factory, and then transported to the construction site, where they are assembled in just a few days. The ability to control implementation is very important - there is no room for surprises, unforeseen costs and other factors that can destabilize construction work.

nowoczesne budynki wielorodzinne Signaturhagen (Norwegia) wzniesione w technologii modułowej

Modern multifamily buildings of Signaturhagen (Norway) erected using modular technology

Photo: © Unihouse

Blazej:The energy and climate crisis has made us look more and more closely at environmental aspects.

Jacek: Modular technology is closely related to the topic of ecology, energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint. It's not just about using solutions such as photovoltaic panels or heat pumps, but also reducing waste at the production stage. This is very important at a time when people are becoming more and more conscious about caring for the planet. Newly-built facilities can be designed in any way, even after a few years of use they can be rebuilt and, if necessary, transported to another location.

Blazej:Modular construction is mostly associated with small volumes. Meanwhile, Unihouse also makes buildings on a much larger scale. Are the costs of constructing a modular building and one based on traditional technologies comparable?

Jacek:Modular construction creates opportunities for building on a large scale. Housing estates, hotels, senior care facilities, schools, nurseries and kindergartens are being put up this way. More and more of them are being built not only for the sake of shorter construction time, but also because of lower costs, including operation. Among other things, modular buildings in wood construction save more than 80 percent in heating costs per year. In addition, modular elements are produced under controlled factory conditions, which reduces material waste and energy consumption, a huge saving that translates into the budget of the entire investment. Another effect of factory production is that the investment is not subject to delays due to bad weather conditions, which often force the suspension of work in traditional construction.

budownictwo modułowe nie oznacza monotonii czy estetycznej nijakości

Modular construction does not mean monotony or aesthetic blandness - multifamily buildings in Stuttgart (Germany) prove that, using modules, it is possible to create architecture that is diverse and impressive

Photo: © Unihouse

Blazej:Most of Unihouse's realizations are in Scandinavian countries (the exceptions are in Gdansk and Bielsk Podlaski). Why are Poles distrustful of modular construction? What needs to happen for us to become convinced of this type of solution?

Jacek: The lower number of realizations in Poland relative to Scandinavian countries is not due to distrust, but rather to lack of awareness. The Polish construction industry is mainly based on traditional construction. Until recently, there was no strong impetus to look for new solutions, but in recent years the topics of climate protection and sustainability have gained importance. This - combined with the constant search for savings - has led Poles to take an interest in modular technology, which has already been used for years in Sweden or Norway, countries that are famous for their environmentally friendly solutions.

Blazej:So can we become a "second Scandinavia"?

Jacek: Interest from the Polish market is growing. Until recently, modules were associated with containers placed on a construction site. There was a lack of awareness that this was a safe and durable solution. Today things are different. The growing demand for modular buildings indicates that Poles already understand what modular technology is and how much they can benefit from it. More and more modular buildings are being built in Poland, but it is still not the leading trend.

Whether modular construction will work in the Polish market could have been discussed ten or fifteen years ago. Today it is already known that it will work. The question is - when will it start to be applied on a mass scale? Growing awareness of the subject brings that time closer, as does a close following of global construction trends, which are slowly being implemented in Poland.

„fabryka domów” — tak wygląda produkcja modułów o konstrukcji drewnianej w Unihouse

"House factory" - this is how the production of timber-framed modules looks like at Unihouse

Photo: © Unihouse

technology and responsibility

Blazej:Architecture and construction are currently facing the challenges of the climate crisis. Can modular construction provide a solution to some of the problems - related to energy savings, for example?

Piotr Kęsek, Director of Qmodular's Engineering and Design Department:Modular technology, due to its construction, has much better thermal performance with the same thickness of partitions, which means a significant reduction in the energy required to heat buildings, which directly affects our climate.

In addition, steel-frame technology contributes significantly to lowering CO2 production, which is also one of the main factors affecting climate change. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and Edinburgh Napier University, modular building technology can produce 41-45 percent less CO2 than traditional construction.

budownictwo modułowe to nie tylko mieszkaniówka; coraz częściej w tej technologii powstają na przykład obiekty biurowe

Modular construction is not just for housing; office buildings, for example, are increasingly being built using this technology

© Qmodular

Blazej:What determines this?

Piotr: Modular technology makes very little, or even no, use of materials of cement origin, yet cement is the building material whose manufacture has the largest carbon footprint. Moreover, the transportation of most building materials is done locally to the house factory. Even including the subsequent transportation of modules, we reduce the transportation carbon footprint by more than 30 percent. Modular buildings are much more energy efficient when in use, and 95 percent of the building can be recycled. What's more, the building as a whole can be "recycled," so to speak, because it can be moved to another site and reused, changing its function. Modular construction allows for the prefabrication of many components and the reduction of construction waste to as little as 5-7 percent, and in the case of structural steel waste to very close to zero (profile offcuts and chips from cutting can be given to the steel mill for reprocessing).

większość procesu produkcyjnego „modułowców” odbywa się w fabryce; transport i montaż gotowych modułów zajmuje stosunkowo niewiele czasu

most of the manufacturing process of "modulars" takes place in the factory; transportation and assembly of finished modules takes relatively little time

© Qmodular

Jester:Has the recent Covid-19 pandemic changed the perception of modular construction and influenced interest in such solutions? It seems that with an uncertain future, flexible solutions (such as the "house from the factory") should be gaining supporters.

Andrzej Kukułka, CSO Qmodular:The Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on the socio-economic situation in Poland. The worldwide lockdown affected the functioning of all industries. The introduction of restrictions on the movement of citizens, the disruption of supply chains or the complete closure of production facilities have negatively affected the availability of building materials and caused price turbulence. The production of buildings in a prefabrication plant allows for a significant reduction in construction time, and the material warehouses of some companies ensured continuity in construction. Most of the construction process is carried out under controlled conditions, regardless of the prevailing weather conditions, allowing the deadlines of the various stages of the investment to be maintained, accurate supervision of expenditures, so it is possible to guarantee the price of the purchased building to customers, without affecting the financial condition of the company. The period of uncertainty during the pandemic made this type of offer, despite the slightly higher price, attractive and increased interest in our country in this technology.

jednorodzinne domy modułowe mogą składać się z jednego prefabrykowanego modułu lub zestawu połączonych elementów

Single-family modular homes can consist of a single prefabricated module or a set of interconnected elements - as needs and circumstances change, the investor can expand the house, reduce it or move it to another location

© Qmodular

Blazej:In Poland, however, modular construction remains relatively unpopular. Why is that?

Andrzej: There are several factors. Many Poles may be unaware of the existence of modular construction and the benefits of using such solutions. In addition, Poland is dominated by a traditional approach to construction.

Blazej:So what is the reason for the high popularity of modular construction in other countries, such as Scandinavian countries?

jednorodzinne domy modułowe mogą składać się z jednego prefabrykowanego modułu lub zestawu połączonych elementów

Single-family modular houses can consist of a single prefabricated module or a set of interconnected elements - with changing needs and circumstances, the investor can expand the house, reduce it or move it to another location

© Qmodular

Andrew: In Scandinavia, the season in which to build is quite short, so modular and prefabricated construction is an excellent solution.

Blazej:Can we think of following in the footsteps of Norway or Sweden?

Qmodular:We run information and education campaigns. Thanks to them, the knowledge of modular construction is growing, and year after year we see a systematic increase in interest in this technology.

interviewed: Błażej Ciarkowski

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