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Modular Construction: Advantages and Disadvantages

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Construction
Wordcount: 2518 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Modular Construction is a new trend in construction that is ever changing. Modular construction is the practice of taking a generalized product or idea and applying it to multiple uses or being able to use it multiple times. New topics and ideas are always arising and helping save money, time, and reduce impact on people and the environment. One major field that modular construction is impacting greatly is the mechanical and electrical fields.

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Modular construction has been around for many years now but has just now started to gain more and more popularity here in the United States. With that come many changes to the modular construction industry and the construction industry as a whole. It affects many things from labor on site to materials used and time taken to complete the job. Modular construction and discuss those aspects are changing in the construction industry every day.

Modular construction is the practice of building structures with premade materials that can be easily changed or re-locatable often these can even be permanent structures. Modular construction elements can be built and assembled on site or built off site then shipped to the jobsite and assembled. These items are preplanned and designed this way. The main purpose of using modular construction on a jobsite would be the ease of installment and the time saving factor. Modular construction is not specific to certain buildings, divisions of construction or location in the world. There are all types of modular construction from precast concrete to manufacturing whole mechanical air handler unit and ductwork. It can also be used anywhere from Alaska to South Texas and anywhere else. As mentioned earlier these can be permanent structures, one example of this would be a precast concrete building or parking garage. An example of a temporary modular construction element is something seen at the majority of construction sites, this would be single or double wide office trailers or offices made out of one or more old shipping containers. Modular construction can be focused on one type of building or structure and focus solely on that. It can also be very broad and build generic items that can be pieced together to make many different types of structures. It is also not limited to modular structures but can be used in components that are put into buildings. There are companies that have started to manufacture modular electrical and mechanical units that have plug and play type of characteristics. Modular construction has many different variables of delivery methods. The modular industry has three main parties in the delivery method; manufacturers, manufacturer direct, and dealers. Manufactures produce the items for general contractors, or dealers and do not deal with owners. Then manufacture direct is similar as they will produce for general contractors or dealers but will also deal directly with owners. Dealers do not manufacture the items but buy them and then sell them to general contractors or owners.

A case study on how to improve project site operations by making them safer, while improving efficiency and productivity while focusing on modular construction. The key subjects to this paper were safety and productivity. The modular components studied were Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing (MEP) systems in Maternity and Oncology portions of hospitals. The systems are made off site at a manufacturing plant. A module was designed containing all mechanical and electrical parts contained within a steel frame then the frame would be hoisted into place still in the frame. The frame was then useless and did not add value after installation so a new frame called ATIF, which stands for Assembly Transportation and Installation frame. This new frame would be implemented in assembly, and transportation and installation but then removed and returned back to the manufacturer to be used on another module. The units are also fastened to unistrut that was cast in the concrete. This elements work needed to be done and helps minimize risk of injury. There are different size situations for the modules and the ATIF is designed to fit multiple sizes of modules by removing or adding components. At this project a total of 1,500 mechanical and electrical modules were produced off site and installed. Using 40  ATIF’s  compared to 1,460 units that were installed this company was able to save money, time, and labor on those frames for the modules.

Maternity and oncology wards there were 196 modules used but did not specify the number of ATIF’s used. The results discussed in the case study include effects on, cost, time, quality, health, safety, and sustainability and site benefits.  These are then separated into categories of construction/manufacturing costs, projects costs, and life cycle costs. The results for construction/manufacturing costs and project cost combined show in favor of using this process in the fact that it saved 8.62% of costs. The material costs were shown to be higher due to the offsite manufacturer adding in their overhead. This specific case study shows that in certain scenarios modular construction saves time, money, and promotes safety on the jobsite. Even though there were added material costs due to outside overhead it seemed that the safety, timeliness and other money savings were worth it. This study does not show that modular construction should be used in all aspects and is the way to do all things but rather shows it can be useful and looked at for potential ways to help on jobsites.

There are many ways modular construction helps the construction industry whether its time, money, safety or even LEAN aspects. The case study discussed previously inadvertently showed how modular construction can also be considered a LEAN construction practice.  The case study showed how adapting frames can save material by using forty frames instead of 1,460. That is by far less material. Modular construction can also be considered LEAN because if a manufacturing plant produces one thing over and over it can value engineer the process and figure out where the most waste comes from and how to utilize that waste or decrease the amount of waste produced. The processes and units built can be altered in design to promote less waste, better processes, and even recycling. These manufacturing plants can also use local products and labor to help the local economy.

One type of LEAN modular construction could be a local lumberyard in Oregon that harvests local lumber then uses that to build modular wood framed systems. Their design department can have building or house layouts already designed so they know exactly how much lumber they will need which helps minimize waste. Scraps from stick lumber can be chipped up to produce OSB (oriented strand board) or particle board that can be used in other steps of the process. In the yard they could produce full walls with door and window openings that are sheathed on the exterior side and even insulated on the interior side.  The lumberyard also produces trusses and a deck system to be installed on top of that to form the roof. If that lumberyard has onsite electricians or plumbers that can even add wiring and plumbing to the walls before shipping them to the site. All these items can then be shipped to the location of the house or any type of building and pieced together quickly and efficiently.

One of the current issues in construction is the human resource capacity. There is a huge labor fight happening because good labor is hard to find and then even harder to keep around without competitive salaries. Modular construction can help in this aspect because fewer framers are needed on a jobsite to frame the house or building. It could also be applied to the concrete portion of construction with precast construction off site. Modular construction is not taking jobs from these trades but rather is helping where there is a shortage. It can even be applied to the electrical and mechanical aspect of construction. Units are able to be pre-manufactured off site then assembled and installed with little help needed on jobsite. It might be difficult to find three skilled electricians to work on one single jobsite. To produce entire cable raceways or other items off site then ship them to site you could potentially only need one skilled and licensed electrician is needed with one or two helpers to assist with the job. The skilled labor can be utilized on multiple jobs rather than concentrating them all to a single job.

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Modular Construction in MEP can reduce cost to subcontractors, the general contractor, and ultimately, the owner if implemented with an integrated project delivery method and using Building Information Modeling (BIM). Contractors or engineers and architects can implement BIM in many ways. When you have one modular piece that can be used in many types of buildings, that unit can be designed in BIM and will aid the design process along with help from clash detection. Modular construction for MEP systems also requires early involvement of the supplier or suppliers that will be used for materials. The area of focus for modular construction in MEP would be piping, conduit and making packages offsite for projects by section or room. These packages would have all the necessary materials prepared with connections and cut to length so that subcontractors require less time on site. The early involvement of the plumbing and fire protection subs and suppliers of materials is crucial to make prefabrication work. Subcontractors can use BIM or other design software to design their scope of the project. These can then be combined with other scopes for clash detection and units can be modified or moved. Once design and clash detection is complete for MEP systems, materials can be ordered and sent to the fabrication shop months in advance. After fabrication these items are stored on site or in a storage facility if storage is needed. Sometimes planning is well thought out that these items are able to be brought straight to the jobsite and installed or will only sit on jobsite for a short time before installation. Minimal time is spent on site with the smaller more tedious cutting, fitting, and measuring of the system because it should already have been taken care of through the use of BIM in designing these units. Along with piping there can also be prefabricated pump rooms for fire sprinkling, geothermal units, and electrical room packages. The package could be pump units that are set up to go in place or even a single room unit that involves all necessary equipment for the project. Other packages such as HVAC can also benefit from the prefabrication of ductwork and vents. The projects that would benefit the most from modular construction for MEP systems would be large-scale commercial building projects to justify the cost of a fabrication shop for MEP systems. This is also true for apartment complexes and buildings that have a repetitive nature reducing the cost of fabrication equipment. When used in conjunction with BIM and Integrated project delivery, MEP system costs and installation times can be reduced, thus overall cost and project schedule can be cut down.

 Codes and regulations specific to modular construction can vary as it is used in different types of construction such as commercial, residential, and healthcare facilities. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), International Code Council (ICC), International Building Code (IBC) and National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) can be encountered in modular construction. Codes vary from state to state-addressing modular construction and modular buildings but some states do not have a building code that is applicable to modular buildings or construction. In most cases for prefabrication the codes you are encountering are the same because the way the materials are installed is the same as a traditional method. When it comes to modular buildings there is no specific code from IBC so discussion with an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) for code and regulation enforcement would be the best place to start to figure out whether a modular building would be acceptable. In most cases the designer of the building will have all the adequate information needed for the proper construction for modular sections or modular buildings. The ICC and Modular Building Institute are working together to create a white paper that would clear up a lot of grey areas in the modular construction world and get everyone up to speed on what modular buildings are and the benefits of using this approach in the construction industry. 

  Modular construction and prefabrication has shown to reduce schedule, project cost, minimize safety hazards and reduce cost of installation. Schedules have been reported by 63% of companies to be reduced by up to a month or more. When used in conjunction with BIM the likelihood of reducing project schedule duration increases because it makes transitions over the course of the project smoother by allowing more communication between members of the project team. Scheduling prefabrication early before other project tasks begin allows space on the job site allowing subcontractors to go along with their work undisturbed. Project costs have also been shown to decrease when modular building is implemented, up to 20 percent or more depending on the contractor. In a traditional delivery method project costs when using modular construction can appear to be higher, but most times due to change orders and other issues that are not as common in modular construction, the end result is a project cost that would be less than that of traditional methods. Safety is another concern when it comes to the project total. The goal for any project should be to come out at the end with no injuries or incidents. This is a place where modular construction can be beneficial. By reducing total time on the project due to off site construction of prefabricated modules and packages by experienced workforce and reduced equipment and materials on site, the risk can be decreased. Everybody needs to be on the same page in order for modular construction to be beneficial, from the owner to the subs and suppliers. A team atmosphere is key.


  • Smith, Ryan E. “Off-Site Construction Implementation Resource: Off-Site and Modular Construction Explained.” Modular Building Institue, doi:10/7/2018.
  • https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.nibs.org/resource/resmgr/OSCC/OSMC_Explained.pdf
  • Court, Peter. Pasquire, Christine. Gibb, Alistair. MODULAR ASSEMBLY IN HEALTHCARE CONSTRUCTION – A MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL CASE STUDY. iglcstorage.blob.core.windows.net/papers/attachment-69b29049-1b12-4212-810f-208935600d7d.pdf.


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