When people talk about modular design, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably IKEA, if you’ve ever done your own furniture shopping. Kids (and their parents) might think of Lego instead. Both brands have become so successful that their identity is synonymous with modularity.
Yet modular design isn’t something humans invented. Nature’s other social builders, bees and wasps, construct hives based on the hexagon as a unit. They don’t follow a style guide or a building plan, but these insects instinctively know that the hexagon is the most efficient pattern relative to the amount of wax required.
The concept of modularity is not a human invention. But we’ve certainly managed to adapt it to countless applications. Long-span shelving can be used to store almost anything in any facility. Desktop computers allow advanced users to customize their build to suit different purposes.
However, we’ve yet to take the same step as bees and adopt the modular design to our homes on a widespread scale. And that can change as the growing call for sustainability pushes us towards more efficient mass housing solutions.
Modularity in architecture
Applying modular design principles to building homes isn’t new. In fact, the history of architecture is rich with examples of its use. Some names involved will be recognizable even beyond the discipline itself: Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Nelson.
Fuller was the first to experiment with the idea of flexible housing. But it didn’t gain traction until the Great Depression created a demand for cost-effective homes. In response, Wright designed ‘Usonian homes’ using modular concrete blocks that would later be incorporated in his famous ‘Falling Water’ house.
The second World War would provide further stimulus to build homes quickly and cheaply. But the postwar ‘concrete tubes’ weren’t comfortable to live in. Nelson’s use of new and affordable materials like plastic (then perceived as futuristic) helped take modular homes a step forward.
Today, modular elements and principles can be seen in homes made using prefabrication. Shipping containers are popular in Europe. Micro-apartments are a solution to high population densities in cities such as Hong Kong.
Overall, however, modular housing has never gained mainstream appeal. It has been a solution in times of hardship, and perhaps its reputation has suffered by association. As soon as the economic outlook improves, homeowners seek to lavish more spending on more elaborate construction.
The merits of modular design
Upfront, the drawbacks of modular homes seem evident. There is an undeniable impression of uniformity to them that’s inherent in the design principles.
Not everyone is content to live in a house that looks like everyone else’s. We view our homes as extensions of our being and spaces on which to project our personality. It’s not impossible to do that with a modular home, but it takes more skill and imagination.
On the other hand, modularity offers considerable benefits to builders and homeowners alike. Because almost everything can be prefabricated, builders have greater control over quality while carrying out their work with speed and independent of factors such as on-site weather conditions.
The overall project cost is also lower by around 11-20%. That’s nothing to sneeze at for the prospective homeowner. It can prove to be the difference-maker if you’re on a tight budget, especially if the drawbacks can be mitigated or worked around.
The case for sustainability
Digging deeper into the modular process offers a glimpse at its real potential for homes of the future. Modular construction is inherently better for sustainability.
Part of that benefit stems from the extensive use of prefabrication. By working mostly in the factory, builders can recover and recycle a greater percentage of waste. It also facilitates the safe disposal of non-reusable waste products compared to working on-site, where there’s a risk of contaminating the local environment.
Prefabrication also saves on transport costs. Instead of making multiple trips to deliver various supplies to the site, everything is drawn from the factory’s inventory. The only deliveries necessary are those for transporting the finished modules themselves. In the process, carbon emissions are reduced as well.
Homes built on modular principles are also easier to repair. The builder can easily replace even extensive damage sustained by a unit.
With careful planning and forethought on the designer or architect, modular homes can also lend themselves to future upgrades. If financial capabilities increase, the owner can add compatible units to the structure instead of a costly remodel.
We’re living through some difficult times, and the years ahead project to be challenging for the environment. Modular housing can once again solve that need, and this time perhaps, stick around for good.