How Modular Can Make Urban Construction More Sustainable

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By using materials more efficiently and reducing waste, modular construction can make urban housing more attainable and more sustainable.

One of the challenges in determining the sustainability of construction processes is the measurement of the carbon impact of a project. There are two types of carbon in a construction project: operational carbon and embodied carbon.

According to Andrew Staniforth in an October 2022 episode of Bridging the Gap Podcast, at the beginning of a project, 80% of the carbon effect is on embodied carbon. Later in the building’s life the majority becomes operational carbon. Staniforth explained that the industry needs a way to refine the measurement of embodied carbon.

In modular processes, there are variables like hi-fidelity materials, as well as the logistics of shipping modules and components. A blog article by Nearby Engineers says offsite workflows in the modular sector have taken a lead in waste reduction during construction.

Modular construction; image: Nearby Engineers, ny-engineers.com

Because modules are produced in a controlled factory environment, there can be better monitoring of materials inventory. In addition, unused materials can be recycled. When stored indoors, leftover materials are protected from UV and moisture degradation, so they can be used on a future job. 


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The innovation of modular has an economic impact on projects in terms of time. A McKinsey report in 2019, explained that the resurgence of modular popularity has happened because it offers opportunities “for fast and cost-effective construction against the backdrop of housing and labor shortages.” Time is more expensive than ever. Modular assembly saves 30-50% of time on a project, which in turn saves significant money. We can see how practical it is as a construction process.

The challenge now is to measure the financial impacts of saving carbon. We need a way to assign pricing to carbon to show how fiscally meaningful that savings is.

Image: Technavio.org

When you look at the full life of a building, initial choices in materials will change the end of life for that building. Sustainability across the life of the building needs to involve a standardized approach to design while keeping the end in mind. Some companies are now designing for assembly and disassembly. Staniforth said his company’s target is for modules that go together easily and eventually come apart easily, too. This is useful not only at the end of a building’s life, but it also enables relocation and reuse of modules. Through reuse, the use of new materials is minimized, and less energy is required to establish a new structure.

Though decades old, modular processes are an innovation for the construction industry, with an invention side and a commercialization side. There’s a difference between the sustainability invention buzzword and putting it into practical use commercially.

In the coming decade, challenges like labor shortages, land availability, interest rates, demand for sustainability, and supply chain issues will not quickly abate. Business models that worked previously may not work so well in the future. A shift is conceivable, with forward-thinking companies moving from traditional methods to a hybrid modular or completely modular process. Companies that transition to modular processes for urban construction can find a way to survive and thrive.


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