The modular building has come a long way from the modular bathroom pods of the 1970s. Module libraries are rapidly being created in Finland in collaboration with various operators in the construction industry, and the modular building practices of the future will enable flexible modification of flats and houses to suit residents’ life situations.
Modular building is already utilised in building design and planning. The process is no longer centred around production and construction, with the focus firmly on efficiency and tight scheduling. The new approach for newbuilds is more about finding feasible and tried and tested design solutions. With modular options, unique and flexible solutions tailored to customer needs are achievable.
“The quality of today’s solutions has improved and these days we can use new materials in modular solutions such as seamless wall-floor-ceiling components, which cannot be used on a regular building site,” says Antti Peltokorpi, Assistant Professor of Operations Management in Construction at Aalto University.
Modular building methods need to replicate building site processes, and the process adopted at a factory may be completely different. Using smart technologies and high-quality design in the modules creates a wow factor for the user. New lifts can measure a variety of parameters, but buildings still cannot do this to the same extent. However, the Internet of Things is well on its way.
Occupational safety and quality are improving
Modular solutions also bring many positives for the construction worker. Occupational health and safety and the quality of the working environment will improve significantly, because work takes place under controlled conditions indoors. Highly ergonomic conditions also improve the quality of the end product and speed up the construction schedule because the building of modules can start while groundworks are still underway.
“Modules are not only spatial modules because modular design can also be applied to other parts of the building, such as the roof, facade or building services. Modular thinking can also be broken down into smaller entities – modules within modules. For example, a modular studio flat can incorporate a modular bathroom, which again contains modular building technology and smart elements,” Antti Peltokorpi explains.
Materials and models, as well as technical features at the module interface, can be standardised, which adds to the freedom of choice. For example, in Finland, any electrical device can be plugged into any socket because this interface has been standardised.
The future of modular building
The modular design does not yet allow for efficient maintenance, upgrade and modification according to the user’s changing needs during the building’s lifecycle.
“The lifecycle of buildings is long. In future, it will be possible to modify dwellings to suit different life stages, so what becomes important when choosing where we live will be less about the type of housing than its location,” says Peltokorpi.
Data modelling is a technology that supports this vision. Detailed product models can be compiled in extensive libraries that can be utilised when a modification is necessary.
The next step may be to improve the modifiability of modules so that while you sleep, your bedroom module turns into a vehicle that transports you to a new location by morning, where the module can hook up to another hub.
“We at Aalto University have drawn up visions far into the future. Transport, housing and work may all happen within the same module,” Antti Peltokorpi says.
Modular building in Finland and globally
Modular building is already commonplace internationally, partly because of the shortage of labour, which is also a challenge in Finland. In Singapore and Japan, the governments strongly encourage modular building. As baby boomers age and retire, producing modules on an industrial scale will be a great advantage, with heavy and hazardous work stages carried out indoors.
“In the United States, for example, building technology is modelled, designed and manufactured in one factory, from which they are delivered to the site as a larger module and installed. This means nobody has to climb up high to the ceiling or install pipes and wires in unergonomic positions,” Antti Peltokorpi says.
Finland has seen some of this new modular thinking, but a larger-scale introduction of the method requires an overhaul of the traditional industry. Modular thinking is a strategic choice which will reshape traditional business models because they will no longer be feasible in modular construction.
A construction firm is seldom able to export labour and skillsets abroad without acquiring or setting up a subsidiary in the destination country. A construction firm that produces modules will find it much easier to enter international markets.
Antti is Assistant Professor of Operations Management in Construction at Aalto University School of Engineering. He is responsible for master’s and PhD level training in Operations Management in Construction.
Peltokorpi’s background is in operations management, which is where his mission to promote the evolution of construction and its development towards a more customer-centred approach and higher productivity stems from.
Peltokorpi’s research interests include modular design, supply chain management, direct construction and inter-organisational collaboration in large projects.
Close collaboration with innovative forerunner companies in teaching and research are among his main sources of inspiration.
Read how the amount of on-site labour can be halved.
Read more about modular thinking in building design.
Read about the Fira Modules.