Myths, Misperceptions, and Prospects for Modular Construction

The reputation of modular construction changed dramatically during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, many people thought prefab or modular meant boring, cookie-cutter, or just plain cheap. But during the pandemic, when traditional construction methods were out of reach, modular construction proved indispensable for meeting the urgent needs to produce healthcare facilities and affordable housing.

As a result, many people started looking at modular construction practices with fresh eyes and saw it as a way to design and deliver quality buildings. In addition to flexibility in design, prefab offers many advantages over stick-built construction by distributing the work and completing components in advance to create sustainable and safer building practices.

As of 2023, the modular market is estimated at $146 billion and is expected to reach $200 billion by 2028, growing at a CAGR of 5.99%.[1] These numbers prove there is a growing interest in modular construction and the time is now for builders and their clients to invest.

Myths and misperceptions

The Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton in 1851 for the first World’s Fair, was the first large-scale example of prefabrication. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s, with the advent of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. prefabricated homes, that the concept took root. Post-World War II, prefab continued to grow as a solution to the housing crisis in the United States to accommodate soldiers returning from war. However, these early modular concepts did not offer many opportunities to fine-tune and tailor designs, so mass production of look-alike buildings popped up. This is what ultimately started modular’s bad reputation. That is no longer the case.

Probably the greatest misperception about modular buildings is that they aren’t formidable or built to last. The truth is quality is among the greatest advantages of modular construction. These structures have tighter tolerances due to fitting components in the field and can withstand whatever extreme weather mother nature has to offer.

Like cars, prefab buildings are fabricated in a factory-like setting that leverages robotics and computer-aided technology to create specialized building components. The predictability and replicability of building parts in a manufacturing-type facility lead to higher-quality products, as people oversee the development and conduct rigorous quality assurance testing, which helps for continuous improvement.

Another common misperception is that leveraging modular components relegates the builder to a standard design, lacking color and character. However, high-end modular buildings are virtually indistinguishable from stick-built—structurally, functionally, and aesthetically. Today’s CAD programs allow architects to design, refine, and tinker with modules from the macro level to each tiny detail. This level of customizability has made the process infinitely more creative. And when it’s combined with the computer precision of robotic construction, the only thing that comes between an architect’s vision and construction reality is physics.

The added benefits

Once developers realize they can get the quality and style they want, the ancillary benefits of modular make it a compelling value proposition.

  • Timeliness – With parts created in a controlled environment, projects come together faster and are less subject to delays. For example, assembly indoors means developers can avoid external environmental factors such as weather. Further, with the ability to move parts forward simultaneously rather than waiting for the completion of one part to move on to the next, the overall project timeline can be expedited.
  • Safety – Incorporating modular and prefabricated components into a construction project can help to reduce construction site injuries and fatalities. With much of the work done offsite, you have a less congested worksite. Fewer people, vehicles, and moving parts are a solid step toward enhanced safety. Indoor factory construction also protects workers from extreme weather conditions that may contribute to accidents.
  • Workforce – In an era where we have to do more with fewer people, and as skilled workers retire, that technology-enhanced factory environment is crucial. In the fabrication setting, there are fewer unknowns compared to a construction site. Building components together allows employees to enjoy regular hours, predictable commutes, better training, and consistent supervision. This industrialized approach to construction creates safer, and more predictable projects while providing certainty in schedule, cost, and quality – all attributes that make construction jobs more desirable to a diverse pool of talent.

For many companies, including Compass, modular construction methods have made it possible to respond to skyrocketing demand for facilities such as data centers. With the AI boom before us, increasingly data-heavy applications, and more stringent latency restrictions, additional data center capacity will be across the globe, and modular buildings will help address those needs reliably and quickly in an attractive package.

Nancy Novak

Chief Innovation Officer, Compass Datacenters