Is modular construction the answer to the Irish housing crisis?

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I recently heard a couple of politicians in a debate discussing how it only takes 12 to 14 weeks from start to finish for a modular house to be built, and therefore we could have tens of thousands of houses all over the country if we just adopted this kind of modular construction method.

I think it’s a pretty divisive thing to say because it’s not a well-known topic and so a lot of people will be out there saying “oh wow didn’t realize that”.  It paints the opposition using this argument in a very good light because it makes them look really innovative, whilst at the same time portrays the current government as inept, because there’s this fantastic technology that they could be using but aren’t.

I’m not going to get into the politics of it, but I do think it’s useful to unpack what’s involved in modular construction to see whether or not it’s the answer to the current housing crisis.

Modular construction – never heard of it!

Let’s start with an explanation of what modular construction actually is.

The construction process that everyone knows is the typical building site: teams who dig holes in the ground, pour the foundation and then build the house up around that foundation. Obviously that’s how it’s been done for hundreds of years and employs a lot of people: electricians, bricklayers, the guys that come in and do the plumbing, the decorators and let’s not forget the guys that put the roofs on – they assemble on the site, do their little bit of work and then that’s it.

Modular construction means every part of the process that happens on site is instead done in a factory in a controlled environment and then brought to the site. Entire sections of a building can be taken to site in one huge big piece and in the space of a couple of days the pieces can be assembled like a big Lego set.

The great thing about it is that because it’s all built inside of a factory there are no delays from the weather: one of the big complaints about traditional construction is that any kind of inclement weather will cause delays.

So right from the outset modular construction feels like it could be a winning solution.

The advantages of modular construction

But are there any other advantages? Obviously the speed at which things can be produced is a massive advantage:  you have an assembly line in the factory of machines built for specific tasks which they repeat over and over. That’s obviously much quicker than someone on site pouring concrete (or doing  whatever has to be done).

The second thing is quality control. Because it’s done in a factory, every processes is controlled and consistent, unlike on a traditional building site when different people, with different levels of experience, come in to work. You might have a plasterer in one room who is more experienced than the plasterer in the next room and the end result is that one job looks much better than the other. Machine-produced work will always be the same, consistent quality and makes it easier to maintain high standards of work.

There’s also a lot less waste because things are measured and cut by computers. Whereas manually you might bring a huge sheet of timber onto a site and end up with lots of leftover bits going to waste, in a factory that’s all designed on a computer to get the maximum out of every piece of material. With less waste the construction immediately becomes more sustainable and energy efficient.

Of course, one of the biggest advantages of modular construction is the reduced labour cost. When  components are built by machine there’s obviously less labour involved, and when they’re delivered to site you might have an entire house closed and ready in just two to three days – one of the reasons it is seen as so fast and so efficient.

How innovative is it really and why isn’t it more popular?

Despite politicians making it sound like it’s only been around for a short time, modular construction has actually existed for more than a century.  It got popular on the continent in the 1950s and 60s: office buildings and large multi-storey apartment buildings all with the same exteriors, made in a factory, taken to site and stacked on top of one another. So whilst this isn’t a new concept, the technology involved is constantly improving, meaning nowadays things are done by automated systems as opposed to people in a factory doing things by hand.

It’s not been as big in Ireland as it has in other parts of the world, which come down in part to Ireland being an island. A lot of the companies that create each component are based overseas, so obviously if you put things on a big truck in Germany going to France, that’s fine, but if you’ve got to transport them via ferry, it becomes much more complicated and far less efficient.

However, you also need to consider a few other factors: there’s limited awareness of it – if you ask pretty much any person on the street about modular construction, they’ll be scratching their heads; you have to consider the influence of other competing industries within construction, such as the concrete industry, which is a behemoth within the Irish market; there’s very limited experience of it being done in Ireland – anyone trying to set up modular construction in Ireland will need to be a bit of a pioneer!

The disadvantages…

It’s important to look at the downsides to modular construction as well, and why it doesn’t always work. I mentioned before that buildings come in very large sections – which can cause some site-specific problems. Let’s say you’re in a a rural setting, where the roads can be very narrow – if you’re transporting huge sections for a construction site, it’s not going to be easy. A lot of remote areas are going to be very difficult to reach, meaning modular construction just isn’t an option.

You’re also limited in terms of your design options. In order to be a efficient, a lot of the time a factory will have specific components and sizing to be chosen from. It’s like a catalogue, or as I said earlier, putting together a Lego set. If you want a very specific design or are working on an irregularly-shaped site, you’ve got less room for manoeuvre or creativity.

Time is of the essence

It’s important to consider whether modular construction is really as fast as it’s claimed. There’s an assumption that it’s super-fast, which I think it’s fair to say is quite misleading, because the reality is that a construction process is not just delivering materials to site and that’s it: there are several other processes to be considered.

First of all, you have to think about zoning. You can’t just build on a piece of land, you have to make sure that it’s got zoning and planning permission – the process of getting that in Ireland can take months if not up to a year. So it doesn’t matter that you have a high speed construction method if it still has to go through a time consuming planning process.

You still have to design and build your modular components which will also take time. Preparing sites for the finished pieces to be assembled needs to be a consideration – concrete foundations, drainage pipes, gas, electricity… whatever it might be, it all requires a civil engineer and a civil works contractor.

So while it might be faster in some respects, it’s important to remember that there are other areas of the construction that will take time.

Final thoughts

So how do I feel about modular construction? Actually, I’m pro modular construction. I think that the innovation and technology out there will make this a superior way to go about building homes and offices.

But is it the solution we’ve been waiting to solve the housing crisis? I don’t believe so. I don’t think it’s possible to overcome the current construction capacity issues at the moment: there’s an entire industry that’s flat out at the moment, are they suddenly going to down tools and say ‘let’s switch to modular construction’? What would happen to all the tradespeople that suddenly become unnecessary?

I think there’s a system out there that works, which I imagine will carry on, but we’ll see new entrants to the market – young people learning modular construction from scratch. I can see those companies starting and becoming bigger, but I can’t see the existing people in the market changing to modular construction, because it might be too much of a learning curve for them, too big of a gap to bridge from their experience of the last 20 years or more.  

I’d like to see modular construction coming in, but let me know what you think – I’d love to know your thoughts!