The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a short-term crisis. It has long-lasting implications for how people work and how supply chains function. There is a pressing need for businesses to build long-term resilience in their value chains for managing future challenges.

This is where modular construction steps up.

Although modular construction is not a new concept, it may become a necessity in current times.

Modularization is described as the process of shifting as much labor-intensive field construction activities from the field to an offsite fabrication facility to mitigate or reduce inherent risks associated with field construction.

There is a stigma around modular and a general hesitance to change as people are used to working in the traditional way. There is also a perception that the product is low quality and has no integrity of design, but that simply isn’t the case now. There is a real lack of knowledge about modular and this reluctance to learn is stunting innovation and growth in the residential sector – and ultimately preventing us from quickly building more homes.

Unlike field construction, modularization is not geographically constrained to the plant site. If a customer’s site is in a region where there is a high risk of COVID-19 exposure, the fabrication of the modules is location independent; therefore, a fabrication site that is in a state where COVID-19 has a much lower prevalence can be selected.

Key advantages of modular construction

Considering the importance of operator safety and social distancing during COVID-19, the following are five key advantages of modular construction:

  • Reduced risk of community spread. When dealing with on-site construction, depending on the project size, fabrication may require over 1,000 craft workers to be performing different tasks simultaneously. In many cases, these are transient workers who will be newcomers to the community. Adding more people to an area can increase the risk of human-human exposure or could promote the spread of COVID-19 to other areas as the transient workers return home due to crew rotations.

  • Reduced risk of exposure to the labor force. Modular assembly typically follows a preset sequence of activities that inherently require a smaller local workforce. This allows for social distancing during work activities, while still being able to adhere to Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) recommended guidelines related to the prevention of workplace exposures to COVID-19. It also brings an advantage from the logistics perspective, as a small local workforce is easier to manage vs. a field-built project, while reducing the likelihood of exposure.

  • Reduced cost and schedule risk. Traditionally, customers could see a 25%–30% cost reduction with modular construction when compared to field construction. The project can be quoted as a firm lump sum bid vs. time and materials (T&M) and fabricated to within 90% completion, with items such as piping components, field instrumentation, lighting, electrical wiring and others installed within a steel frame. All of this is done offsite, reducing the amount of onsite work required during installation. Furthermore, in parallel, the customer can proceed to apply for work permits as the construction of the modules have already begun at an offsite shop, while minimizing plant-site interruptions due to construction. During a COVID-19 environment, with fabrication occurring offsite, the ability to continue module fabrication when field construction sites would otherwise be shut down or materially impacted by COVID-19, reduces the potential for extended schedule and increased costs associated with delays. Furthermore, minimal plant site interruptions allow the customer to proceed with their normal operations, adjust to the new requirements and create a set of preventive procedures that can be later shared with the module installation workforce.

  • Increased productivity. Building a full system in a controlled environment brings many benefits, including increased productivity. For example, the workforce is not subject to weather-related delays and benefit from inherent efficiencies when working in a purpose-built fabrication facility. Considering COVID-19, fabrication shops are not experiencing the same level of productivity hits being taken in the field during construction. In the field, construction teams are implementing preventative measures such as daily pre-work health checks, staggered lunch schedules, breaks and re-checks when the workforce members enter and exit the field construction facility to minimize risk exposure to COVID-19. These required, and necessary practices are important to protect workers from exposure. However, they come at a cost to productivity. Naturally, a smaller fabrication shop crew vs. a full field construction crew—that could be thousands of workers—minimizes the impact to productivity and eventually cost and schedule. Working in a controlled environment, which is offsite from the client, also allows for ease of maintenance of sanitized workspaces with a smaller concentration of crew members.

  • Reduced commercial and contractual risk. Decreased productivity, schedule delays, rising project costs, among others, resulting from a COVID-19 environment, present themselves eventually as commercial and contractual risks, such as liquidated damages and a possible force majeure. By leveraging the inherent benefits of modularization, suppliers and owners can minimize the likelihood and/or severity of such commercial and contractual risks.

A way forward for the construction industry

Modular construction and pre-fab building, which was already steadily on the rise, should see a huge boost in interest in the post-pandemic era. Both the manufacturing process and the result are perfectly suited for the times.

Whatever happens in 2021, there’s a growing consensus that digital technology is the future of the construction industry. It can give companies the flexibility to adapt their systems at speed when regulations change, minimise risk across their operations and make quality and compliance a natural outcome of everyday activity.

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