Volumetric modular construction

While traditional build processes are laced with hidden costs, delays and are highly disruptive – volumetric modular construction brings performance and programme certainty, along with transparency and robust data to ensure safety. Jackie Maginnis, chief executive from the Modular and Portable Building Association, shares more detail

The reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) issue has generated alarming building safety headlines across the media, highlighting the plight of 230 plus affected schools. The Guardian however, has recently published a more uplifting story about how modular and portable building firms are ramping up production to supply temporary facilities at a time of crisis. But as Richard Hipkiss from the Modular and Portable Building Association points out, this is not the first time the industry has come to the aide of the education sector.
Although many think volumetric modular construction is a new thing, some MPBA members have remarkable histories over many decades in providing the highest-quality education buildings – from temporary classrooms to multi-storey teaching blocks complete with offices, catering facilities and welfare accommodation.
The concept of factory manufactured buildings was born out of an education emergency. The baby boom following World War II resulted in an urgent need to rapidly increase school places. This stimulated a search for new methods of construction to alleviate the problem. The emphasis was to supplement traditional building operations with methods of construction using industrial factory capacity outside the industry. Redundant munitions factories were used to produce prefabricated school buildings to meet urgent demand.
Contemporary volumetric modular buildings are far removed from the ‘prefabs’ of yesteryear. Modular approaches are now acknowledged as revolutionising the construction industry. While traditional build processes are laced with hidden costs, delays and are highly disruptive – volumetric modular construction brings performance and programme certainty, they are easy to plan, budget and are quick to install.

Building safety

‘Building a Safer Future’ – an independent review of Building Regulations and fire safety, by Dame Judith Hackitt was published in
2018 following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, setting out more than 50 recommendations for government to deliver a more robust regulatory system.
The Building Safety Act (BSA) is a comprehensive piece of legislation based on this report that aims to improve building safety and standards, with a particular focus on higher-risk buildings. Introduced in April 2022, buildings classified as ‘high risk’ such as student accommodation blocks over 18 metres will come under a more stringent regulatory regime, but the new regulations also have implications across the wider construction industry including the education sector.
On 01 October 2023, the secondary legislation needed to support the practical implementation of the Building Safety Act came into force to help ensure responsible parties operate within the law. The Building Safety Regulator (BSR) based within the Health and Safety Executive – will now monitor the construction industry and will be able to impose fines, order alterations or the removal of non-compliant work. The extensive enforcement powers granted by the Building Safety Act means the Buildings Safety Regulator has the power to prosecute individuals of corporate bodies.

The golden thread

In her report, Dame Judith Hackitt highlights the need for a system-based approach with a ‘golden thread’ of information running through the lifecycle of each project. The purpose of this golden thread is to ensure that all relevant parties have access to accurate information about a building’s safety risks and how they can be managed over time.
One important piece of legislation introduced by the Building Safety Act is the golden thread of information in construction. This refers to a clear and complete record-keeping system that tracks all aspects of a building’s design, construction and maintenance throughout its entire lifecycle.
It would be expected that the more stringent building safety regime underpinned by the new Construction Products Regulator would prevent situations such as the RAAC issue ever arising again. But if a construction product fault was ever identified, having such a record of information would mean affected buildings could be quickly identified.

Traceability and accountability

Providing a golden thread of information from concept to completion is a process that many in the construction industry are struggling to implement. Central to the concept is guaranteeing the traceability and availability of project data and all decisions relating to the design, construction, safety performance and maintenance of the building.
The ‘thread’ involves the information handed over at the completion of a project which must be right from the start of client ownership and then must remain accurate throughout the building’s lifecycle. With traditional construction, often key information such as product specification and maintenance details are not complete or accurate at the point of client handover, which means the golden thread required for optimal running and safety cannot be achieved.
With volumetric modular construction, all data can be validated and coordinated as part of a structured process, which helps provide accurate and reliable information for clients at the point of handover. It also means it is easier to identify what products and material specifications were used on previous projects should any legislation changes occur.
By verifying the materials and products to be used on a construction scheme and by simplifying the onsite assembly process, volumetric modular construction offers developers an opportunity to avoid many traceability issues. Modular construction helps ensure client satisfaction and product assurances through the certainty and quality embedded into the build process. Modular builds are less susceptible to poorly specified manufacturers’ products as time can be taken upfront to validate the correct specification of materials. This allows clients to have confidence in the quality and performance that they can expect from their new building.
By completing large elements of construction away from the build location, they can also reduce the length of construction time spent onsite as well as reduce the risk of unforeseen construction issues.
It is standard practice for Building Information Modelling (BIM) to be embedded into the design and advanced manufacturing processes involved in modular construction. As an established method of sharing building lifecycle data across design, construction and operation – BIM is also regarded as integral to achieving a golden thread.
Since 2016 the BIM mandate has required UK public sector construction projects to use BIM technology. This has helped speed up the pace of adoption during the design and construction phases. It has been predicted that government intervention around the golden thread will accelerate things further.
As I have mentioned before, modular construction is not a new industry but through learnings from advanced manufacturing and best practice in other sectors, it represents a genuine opportunity to disrupt an often-disjointed industry which suffers from a lack of data traceability and accountability.
With its powerful combination of controlled deliverables and customisable outputs, modular construction provides the repeatable quality and safety needed to meet client demands. It is going to be difficult to achieve the levels of assurance and traceability the UK construction industry will need to actively deliver a golden thread of information from concept to completion – without an even wider adoption of modular technology.

Image shows Polegate School - ©Wernick Group