Dr. Mohamed Al-Hussein, a professor of engineering at the University of Alberta, gave a presentation at the 2011 Infrastructure Partners Conference on the opportunities and challenges of industrializing and modularizing the construction process.
The main benefits of modularization are schedule, waste reduction, and safety.
Fabricating modules and then installing them on-site is much quicker than traditional construction. Dr. Al-Hussein was involved with a project at Muhlenberg College in the United States in which five 3-story dormitories were constructed in ten days, which is considerably quicker than would be the case if they were built traditionally.
Fabrication in a factory considerably reduces waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Al-Hussein and a colleague have created an algorithm for machine cutting wood for modules at a factory in Germany that reduces wood waste from 18% to less than 3%.
Factory construction is also safer; work comes to the workers and is designed to minimize bending, kneeling, and lifting. As well, it is easier to control for harmful dust and fumes in a factory environment.
The challenges of construction modularization are largely industry resistance and cost.
Both contractors and clients mistakenly believe that modular construction produces a shoddy building. Al-Hussein argues that while this may have been true years ago, advances in modular construction such as the increased usage of BIM have largely solved quality issues.
Modular construction may actually cost less than traditional construction, due to a shorter schedule and less rework, but cost can escalate due to shipping. If the site is located far from the module factory, the costs of shipping the modules can be a considerable expense. This may be solved as modularization becomes more popular and the manufacturing base becomes more decentralized.
This and other presentations from the conference will soon be available on the Consulting Engineers of Alberta website.