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The evolution of volumetric modular technology

posted: 26th Jul 2020

Swansea University Active Classrooms - Photo courtesy of Wenicks

Volumetric modular systems are often perceived as a new offsite innovation, the reality is that these solutions have been around for decades.

Operating in the sector for more than 30 years, Jackie Maginnis, chief executive of the Modular & Portable Building Association, has seen many changes. Here, she discusses the transformation that has taken place from inception to the technically advanced systems that are gaining great acclaim today.

The end of World War One saw the UK construction industry affected by major shortages of skilled labour and building materials – both having been diverted to the war effort. The result was an acute shortage of housing. This stimulated a search for new methods of construction that would alleviate this problem.

The emphasis was to supplement traditional building operations with methods of construction using industrial capacity outside the building industry. Immediately after the war there was a surplus of steel and aluminium production from industries geared to war output and now requiring diversification to survive. These factors drove the industry towards prefabrication and resulted in many varieties of concrete, timber, steel and hybrid framed systems.

Pioneering volumetric units during the 1940s were made up of four aluminium-framed components, one of which contained the entire plumbing system. These were later superseded by aluminium panelised construction. Steel, timber and concrete framed systems continued to be developed right into the early 1980s and beyond to the multitude of advanced systems we have today.

As offsite has become an increasingly dominant force that utilises high levels of technology, the lines between manufacturing, engineering and construction have become blurred.

Ongoing reviews of Building Regulations, particularly the requirements for thermal, acoustic and safety performance, are quite rightly setting more onerous standards. Good performance standards require quality workmanship.

As units are factory manufactured, stringent quality control processes can be undertaken within these well-managed environments. These in-house conditions also prevent weather from inhibiting the manufacturing process, guaranteeing efficiency. In addition, modular construction enables site work and building processes to be completed simultaneously, reducing labour costs and build times. Volumetric technology allows providers to customise any modular building to meet exacting needs and blend in with surroundings.

Each individual material can be selected specifically for its performance characteristics, tailoring every inch of a modular build. Sustainable materials are often specified, and waste is recycled for future projects wherever possible. Not only this, but components are also available in a range of sizes for expansions whenever necessary.

Modular approaches are revolutionising the construction industry. While traditional build processes are laced with pitfalls, hidden costs and are highly disruptive, volumetric modular buildings are easy to plan, budget and are quick to install.

But it is not only volumetric modular construction that is evolving: the variety of uses of portable buildings is on the rise. Historically known as accommodation for construction sites, today these buildings have been transformed from their humble ‘cabin’ beginnings to a multitude of sophisticated uses. From location amenities for TV crews, coffee shops and sales offices to temporary Covid-19 testing centres, sleeper units for care homes and additional classrooms for schools – portable buildings now have a vast amount of uses and can be tailored to meet specific needs.

There is currently unprecedented demand for portable buildings and these adaptable units have helped alleviate the vast need for additional facilities throughout the pandemic and members of the MPBA have been kept busy helping healthcare providers locate suitable units for hire or purchase.

Volumetric modular technology and portable buildings bring a host of benefits and now augment the construction industry with a multitude of advantages that span from greener, healthier environments to maximised sustainability, heavily reduced costs and rapid build times.

posted by : MPBA, appears in August 2020 edition PBC Today