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Best Practices

Major Breakthroughs with Eco-Friendly Construction with Modular Elements

Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By McLittle Stock | stock illustration ID: 226572343
Daniel Gray

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Architects and engineers have made great strides in green building design in recent years, with many buildings now taking advantage of sustainable materials and green technology.  

That said, the process of construction itself is still rather harmful to the environment. The construction industry accounts for 36% of global energy usage and 39% of energy-related carbon emissions annually, according to the United Nations

Modular construction, an alternative to traditional building techniques, offers a possible remedy through efficient processes and shorter project timelines. Overall, modular construction—while not a perfect solution—is a marked improvement in the environmental sustainability of the construction industry.

Read on to learn how modular construction works and how it benefits the environment. 

How Modular Construction Works

Traditional buildings are built directly on site, but modular buildings are mostly constructed in factories and later assembled on the building site. 

Using an assembly line process, workers and machines build modules—which are small, cube-like portions of a building—including the walls, floors, roofs, insulation, and windows. Often, fixtures and finishes are also adding to the modules at this point, eliminating the need to add these later at the building site. 

modular construction
Image courtesy of Vanguard Modular

By the time a modular building leaves the factory, it is already “built” and only needs to be assembled. On the building site, construction workers use cranes and other equipment to hoist each module into place. After each module is set down, workers “lock” the modules together to form a seamless building, then tradespeople connect pipes and wires that were already pre-installed in the factory. 

One notable advantage of modular construction is that projects are completed on average twice as fast. This increase in efficiency is easy to understand: Whereas on a normal building site, construction can’t start until the building site is prepared, a modular building is constructed in the factory at the same time the building site is being prepared. 

Once a modular building is completed, it is indistinguishable from a similar structure built in a more traditional way and often has numerous environmental advantages that traditional buildings cannot compete with. 

modular building institute
Image courtesy of the Modular Building Institute.

Environmental Benefits of Modular Construction

While everyone can appreciate the increased efficiency brought on by modular construction, it turns out that this efficiency is also hugely beneficial to the environment. 

For example, a modular building company that is constructing a number of different structures in its factory is able to reuse materials on multiple projects that would typically end up as debris on a traditional building site. This is very consequential, as the construction industry accounts for 56 million tons of waste every year. The sharp reduction in materials waste encouraged by modular construction methods has huge downstream effects for the environment. 

construction
Image courtesy of Cnstrctr.

Because a modular factory is able to optimize deliveries for multiple projects to a central location, modular construction requires 90% fewer deliveries overall, leading to an enormous drop in carbon emissions from trucks and other commercial vehicles. 

Most importantly, the very fact that modular construction projects are more efficient is beneficial to the environment, since it involves lower energy expenditures. The factory optimizes its processes through machine learning, reducing energy needs, and the construction site has lower energy demands because the on-site timeline is so short. 

Beyond the construction process, many modular buildings have green features embedded, like solar panels, superior insulation, and recycled materials. All of these choices are an extension of the overall environmentally-friendly approach pursued by modular construction companies. 

Examples of Modular Construction

Modular construction is taking off in popularity, though it still only accounts for a small percentage of the $1 trillion U.S. construction industry. Nonetheless, examples of modular construction abound in both residential and commercial construction—with more buildings likely to pop up in the coming years, since modular construction can easily take place with smaller crews, a necessity during the pandemic.

Some modular buildings are created as fanciful experiments in sustainability. For instance, the Wikkelhouse is a small structure from the Netherlands made entirely from recycled cardboard. Despite its curious choice of material, the Wikkelhouse is hardy, expected to last upwards of fifty years. 

While this is a shorter lifespan than a typical house, a basic Wikkelhouse module costs just $35,000. Still, the Wikkelhouse is more of an exercise in creativity and clever use of materials rather than a practical solution to the need for green buildings. 

Others are taking the concept much further with the hopes of completely transforming the building landscape in favor of sustainable production and design. For example, Plant Prefab has recently raised $6.7 million with the mission of revolutionizing the housing market in favor of environmental building. 

plant prefab
Image courtesy of Plant Prefab.

Plant Prefab’s ethos revolves around their “Z6 Environmental Program,” which leverages the power of modular building techniques to meet six goals: 

  • Zero Energy: Reduce each home’s energy demands with insulation, window treatments, low-energy appliances, and more.
  • Zero Water: Integrate low-flow appliances and greywater systems to use wastewater for landscaping irrigation.
  • Zero Emissions: Improve indoor air quality by eliminating dangerous chemical compounds from building materials
  • Zero Waste: The modular building process eliminates waste by enabling the possibility of reusing materials across projects.
  • Zero Carbon: Carbon offsets are purchased to account for all emissions made during building.
  • Zero Ignorance: Make sure that homeowners are aware of the environmental impact of their choices.

While these goals are articulated clearly by Plant Prefab, they are not unique to that company. Across the industry, modular construction companies are committed to using their technological advancements for the betterment of our environment. The unique process of modular construction is creating the possibility for a revolution in housing that is vital in our current circumstances.

And modular construction is not limited to small projects. Entire apartment complexes have sprung up with modular building techniques. For example, the 1775 Federal Apartments in Denver were designed and built by a modular construction company, and the bulk of assembly took only a few weeks with a crew of just five men

Modular buildings also serve purposes beyond housing. An excellent example is High Tech High in Chula Vista, CA, an entirely modular high school that was completed in 18 months, now serving 600 students. 

archdaily
Image courtesy of ArchDaily.

The project focused on sustainability from the start with incredible results. For example, the modules were built with sloped roofs to align solar panels more effectively, and as a result, the panels produce 85% of the school’s required energy. Water systems were designed to reduce usage, so the building uses 52% less water than a building of comparable size. The contractor used locally-sourced, sustainable materials for construction, and 83% of materials were diverted from the landfill to be used in other projects. 

A well-designed modular project has environmental benefits throughout the entire life of a project, from the construction process all the way through the lifespan of a building. With a climate crisis looming, modular construction may be an effective approach to meeting housing needs while still remaining good stewards of our planet. 

Below, view the infographic from BigRentz for a detailed look at how modular construction benefits the environment

Modular Construction Infographic

Daniel Gray is a writer at Siege Media and BigRentz.com.

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