Childhood Memories of Modular Construction – Neil Scroxton
I remember, not so many years ago, that modular construction was seen as the poor cousin to ‘real’ construction. The mere suggestion of designing buildings that could be constructed off site and craned into location, evoked memories of freezing cold school mornings in a rotting damp box at the end of the playground. Paint flaking into my morning milk (pre-Thatcher) and condensation dripping into the electrical heaters. I never did work out why the outsides of our classrooms were covered with coarse sand infused dark green paint, capable of removing the delicate child-soft skin from your arms if you glanced past a wall in a tee-shirt. And I’m forever grateful that the summers were not hot enough to spontaneously combust flammable materials like they are today. Mod-u-lurrrggghhh, no thanks, not for me.
But then something changed and modular got good. But not just good, it got damn good. It got precise, it got warm, it even started to look good. And when the ‘real’ materials that we were using to build the ‘real’ buildings started to dry up, modular got available and reliable. Modular, or rather those that delivered modular (who I can only assume are as mentally and physically scared by their educational facilities as I am), upped the game and transitioned from mod-u-lurrrggghhh to mod-u-luuuuvely.
One of the big changes, and a change that will continue to drive modular construction, was the ability to customise projects. The original sandpaper-green boxes may have technically been bespoke, but they all felt the same and the kit of parts were limited. Creativity and individuality were very much left on the factory floor.
On the face of it the concept of individuality seems to jar with the idea of modular. But what the modular world has cleverly done is give clients the freedom of choice and customisation at the surface level, while developing conformity, repetition, and efficiency behind the scenes, so that clients can get the best of both worlds. A quality finish and a controlled cost. We will see this develop more over the coming years as technology continues to improve the structural delivery of modular construction, allowing more room for creativity at the finish level.
Modular is no longer just a nice way of saying ‘temporary’ with modular buildings having long and sustainable life spans. It is the transition to permeance that has opened the door to investment in modular buildings. The mould-boxes of 80’s and 90’s institutional expansion programmes were never meant to be in use 5-10 years after install. It was always assumed that there would be the money to replace them and when that money never came, they were used well beyond their life spans. But now, we build homes that will outlast multiple generations with modular construction methods and we can be sure that the technologically advanced materials that are used have longevity and durability (without the rough exterior).
It is fair to say that all construction methodologies are making changes to be more sustainable. Yes, modular is inherently sustainable by controlling waste and ensuring a consistent standard of highly efficient materials, and yes, sustainability is really important to the planet and our pockets. But the virtues of modular construction extend beyond sustainable credentials, and it would be wrong to think of modular as a one-trick-pony. The future of modular is without a doubt to help deliver sustainable buildings, however it will do that while helping to promote less obvious sustainable KPI’s such as standards of craftmanship and improved conditions for the construction industry labour force.
From classrooms, to hospitals, to homes and garden rooms, modular construction methodologies are helping to raise building standards and control budgets. And as modular becomes more and more mainstream, we will see technology improve to deliver even better performing and highly individual solutions that are sound investments for the future of our built environment. And, who knows? In 35 years’ time, my youngest son may be writing about his childhood joy of looking out of the perfectly clear windows of his warm class room, wandering why his old stone house was not as cosy as his modularly constructed thought-factory, and how he distinctly remembers coming in from playtime each day, without leaving half of his upper arm grazed onto the exterior of the building each day.