Modular

Six ways modular building is accelerating sustainability

Last year the government made a clear commitment to sustainable construction...

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May 17, 2021
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Last year the government made a clear commitment to sustainable construction. In their Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, they highlighted a number of initiatives to stimulate near-term investment in sustainable practice and accelerate our path to net-zero carbon construction. But how has modular construction emerged as a frontrunner of sustainablity? We spoke to specialists in modular construction Craig Harrison of Newtons and Julian Kerby of ODG Project Management to find out.

1. Driving innovation in materials

The clearest demonstration of modular’s ability to be more sustainable than traditional build comes in the form of Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs). By using timber frames they are already more sustainable than their steel or concrete equivalents, but their most impressive feature is the use of a magnesium oxide facing, which is the most recurring natural mineral in the world. The result isa highly insulated and very sustainable, versatile building system that can be used most in modular projects. Julian explains

“We’re seeing incredible results with SIPS. I’ve worked on a three-part system that became a fully carbon-zero product; so thermally insulated that it needed cooling rather than heating! You just don’t get that with traditional construction materials.”
Photo by Bianca Sbircea-Constantin

2. Enabling the quick adoption of carbon neutral systems

 A notable part of the government’s plan was the commitment to installing 600,000 heat pumps every year from 2028.  As described by the Ground and Water Source Heat Pumps Association “Heat pumps are a proven, efficient and very low emissions technology that can deliver heating and cooling to homes and businesses at the lowest operating cost.”

But while retrofitting homes across the country will be a costly process both in terms of money and time, modular construction allows a way for these materials to be quickly adopted, mastered and introduced into the production line in a matter of weeks. Craig explains

“The biggest adoption of these heat pumps in housing. Aside from their sustainable credentials, they are quicker and cheaper to install than running gas pipes, plus you reduce or eliminate the cost of future maintenance such as gas conditioning and boiler servicing. It’s a no-brainer really.”

3. Creating a centralized knowledge hub

 “What I’m delighted to see is a coming together of the modular construction market when it comes to knowledge-sharing around innovation”

says Julian. “Sites such as buildoffsite.com and Construction Innovation Hub are sharing more and more best practices for Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) that are quickly embraced by the industry.”

We also see this move towards sharing knowledge demonstrated by organisations such as Homes England who have embarked on a study to monitor the construction of around 1,500 homes at modular sites across the country over several years. The study will test the performance of different types of MMC to provide long-term, in-depth and verifiable data so that informed decisions about emerging construction technologies can be made. Another example is NHBC who have developed their own, public MMC Hub, providing research and reviews of systems designs for use in modular for contractors to read and choose from.

4. Reducing material waste

Modular has enabled longer-term investment in construction infrastructure. The development of modular fabrication sites not only means that the workshops can be purpose-built to make the team more efficient, but also that the materials all stay in the same location which naturally reduces waste.

“It’s not just about making sure waste materials from one run can be reused on the next, it’s actually forecasting and measuring your waste output”

Craig explains. “Since running modular projects, I’ve been able to make waste estimations and check up week to week. If I see we’re producing more than expected we can find out why and tackle it, whether it’s through training of the team or a redesign of the process.”

Photo by Makita Yo

5. Increasing quality control

An important advantage to modular construction over on-site construction is the increased control over the quality of the finished result. Julian explains

“There's the finish itself, but also the ongoing maintenance that’s caused by poor quality work. It’s a hidden cost that is often not factored in.”

This is particularly pertinent for Housing Associations and public bodies who simply cannot afford to have projects delayed because of poor quality in the process, or to be patching up bad finishes for years after the development’s completion.

“With everyone working under one roof, we have much more control over the environment. Not only that but we’re able to run a much more rigorous testing procedure and appoint someone to do QA full time to ensure a maintained high standard. That never would have worked out with our site to site projects” Craig explains.

6. Lowering the energy draw

“For buildings and construction to become future-proofed, it’s about working out how to reduce the energy draw across individual properties or estates” explains Julian. “If we’re going to switch from gas to electric at the pace the government is committing to, we’re going to need to be smart about it. While electricity infrastructure itself develops, the system can only take so much draw. We need systems to manage dynamic load balance. Smart ways to distribute electricity and charging based on time of consumption, not just when it was plugged in.”

“We welcome the Government’s commitment to improving the environmental impacts of construction and are happy to see them encourage the uptake of MMC in housing delivery” says Craig.

“It’s part of our mission at Newtons to champion sustainability and ultimately make things more affordable for the end-user of these homes. So it’s great to see we’ll be doing this in line with the Government’s plan. ”

For more information on how your project could benefit both financially and sustainably from modular construction, speak to the team at Newtons Connect.

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