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A Call to Arms

posted: 12th Feb 2010

Jackie Maginnis, Chief Executive of the Modular & Portable Building Association is a firm believer that modular buildings meet all the required criteria to be a successful and truly modern method of construction. Here she provides a brief guide to what you should be looking for in your prefab structure.

Sustainability. Embodied energy. Carbon emissions. Waste reduction. If you or your clients are looking to meet any of this set of criteria, then offsite construction in the form of a modular or portable building could be your answer.

Progress throughout the last 70 years has been considerable with buildings of all types of design and uses now being manufactured and installed. Hotels, hospitals, schools, offices and prisons are just a few applications. This industry has come a long way quickly in recent years and traditional buildings are no longer the only option available.

Talking Terminology

Terminology tends to proliferate in any industry and portable buildings is no exception, with their multiplicity of designs and uses, seem to have acquired more than their fair share. For example buildings can be described as portable, modular, linked, panel, system or volumetric, take your pick. Portable buildings can best be defined as those made wholly in a factory and then transported for the installation on prepared foundations.

Most, but by no means all, portable buildings can be removed and relocated to a new site with little or no waste. The main advantage of this type of building is speedof construction, as for example the groundwork canproceed at the same time as the buildingtakes shape in the factory. Site assembly quickly produces a weatherproof shell, so progress is rarely delayed by bad weather. Speed of construction also leads to considerable cost savings when compared to conventional building methods.

Many manufacturers produce the ubiquitous cabin in all its various guises: mounted on telescopic jackleg wheels or skids, and are used for everything from an office to a store, canteen to classroom, computer suite to a hospitality suite. Withan ever-increasing demand for security today, the market has grown for more container steel units that again have moved forward to a higher specification.

On the outside one would not be able to see the quality and specification that has improved over the years to give clients comfort and protection. Modular buildings on the other hand tend to be larger and more permanent and are produced in modular or slices, bolted together onsite in a variety of configurations to produce the clients required accommodation.

Lifespan Is Everything

System buildings are yet more permanent, because they comprise a steel or timber frame, erected onsite to which are fixed cladding panels produced by a number of different 'systems' or designs. Finally, volumetric units are defined as factory-built modules transferred to site in made- up form, and typically areresidential designs or increasingly sophisticatedhotel rooms or toilet and bathroom pods, for installation in other permanent buildings. It is probably fair to say that historically, prefabricated buildings have had a fair share of criticism levelled at them.

Considered by many to be a poor substitute to the 'real thing'. However, school classrooms for example, have proven themselves over the years and many are still in use by local authorities. Like all products, there is no such thing as maintenance free, all buildings need maintenance: it would be like purchasing a car and then expecting this to be trouble-free over a 25-year lifespan. The fact that thousands of temporary buildings continue to perform their function is a tribute to a largely unsung industry.

Building of two, three or four-storeys or higher are now available in the marketplace and members of the MPBA currently produce classrooms, laboratories, prisons, operating theatres, computer rooms, kitchen and dining facilities with many varied and interesting building types.

It is a well known fact in our industry sector and not well publicised, that the use of pre-owned modular building is one of the most environmental friendly methods of construction and is a highly sustainable alternative to newbuild, reducing the amount of demolition and disposal of buildings in landfill sites. We talk continuously about sustainable solutions in the current climate - what better example with a modular building that can be relocated?

Enormous Market Potential

Modern modular buildings can be stylish, secure, economical to heat and maintain and flexible in their use. External appearance of modular buildings today can be specified to suit individual requirements and the different concepts of system building can be panellised or volumetric.

Basically, the quality, standard and overall look of modular buildings, has progressed dramatically over the last decade in particular and will only get better. They are no longer temporary structures but conform to all the latest legislation and building regulations and compare favourably with any traditional form of construction. Today in a market, that is potentially worth in excess of a £1bn, modular and portable buildings continue to fill an important gap. The industry is no stranger to offsite construction - it is what we do and how we continue to develop new ideas and technology that is crucial.

Article by Jackie Maginnis, published in Off Site Construction Autumn 2009