Why is modular and prefabricated construction gaining popularity in multifamily housing?

Demand for multifamily housing continues to rise — but challenges like material shortages and a tight labor market have made it difficult for the construction industry to meet growing needs.

Modular and prefabricated construction techniques are becoming increasingly popular as a way to improve the productivity and cost-effectiveness of multifamily residential construction.

Here’s why these techniques are growing in popularity right now and how they may impact the construction industry’s future.

Pandemic-Related Construction Challenges Prompt Innovation in Multifamily Housing

The COVID-19 pandemic is partially responsible for the trend. Overnight, challenges that existed before the pandemic — inefficient construction practices and a lack of innovation — suddenly became more of a threat than ever to the industry.

Even as the pandemic winds down, construction companies continue to deal with lingering supply chain volatility, material shortages and a tight labor market. These factors have made productivity and efficiency more important than ever, as the waste of resources or labor has become much more likely to cause delays or sink projects altogether.

Profit margins for the industry can be extraordinarily thin right now, prompting process changes that make construction projects more cost-effective and profitable.

At the same time, COVID-19 also created a significant spike in demand for affordable housing, especially multifamily. Demand continues to lag behind supply, even as residential starts begin to recover to near pre-pandemic levels.

This combination of growing construction costs and rising demand has pushed the industry to turn to innovative solutions.

How Modular and Prefabricated Building Units Streamline Construction

Off-site construction techniques — like modular and prefabrication — could help the industry improve productivity and meet the growing demand for multifamily homes. These techniques offer a few advantages over more conventional, on-site strategies.

1. Reduced Waste and Environmental Impact

Even with the use of recycled materials and similar sustainability practices, the construction industry generates a massive amount of waste in carbon emissions and landfilled materials.

The precision of off-site construction and a controlled manufacturing environment reduce this waste.

Standardizing design makes it possible to improve manufacturing precision. Unused materials can also be immediately stockpiled as needed, allowing for reuse in a future project.

The same isn’t always true for leftover materials on a construction site, which must be transported before they can be reused.

Off-site construction can also enable the use of additional sustainable building materials, like cross-laminated timber, a wood-based substance that can help companies sequester carbon.

Other companies may use off-site construction to take full advantage of recycled concrete masonry units (CMUs) that divert waste from industrial landfills.

In some cases, construction companies may even be able to take advantage of innovative technology, like 3D building printers, that can further reduce waste and streamline the manufacturing process.

2. Minimized On-Site Build Time

Modular construction also significantly reduces on-site build time. This means less foot and vehicle traffic on the site, which reduces damage to foliage. Limiting vehicle traffic can also prevent smog the area may be exposed to otherwise.

Reducing the length of construction projects can also help prevent erosion and runoff. If topsoil is exposed for just the few days workers need to assemble the modular units, there would be much less erosion than if the project went on for weeks or months.

3. Reliability and Repeatability

The manufacture of modular building units and prefab structures happens in a controlled factory environment. Manufacturing conditions like temperature and humidity can be easily controlled with the facility’s HVAC system.

Buildings constructed on-site are exposed to various conditions that the construction company has no control over. A project can easily last several months, exposing a structure to varying temperatures and weather. This can have a major negative impact on the building’s strength and stability.

4. Improved Worker Health and Safety

Despite adopting new safety technology and safer working practices, the construction industry remains dangerous for workers. The sector as a whole poses significant risks to its workers, including the possibility of falls, electrocution and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Off-site construction significantly reduces some of these hazards, potentially making the industry much safer for workers.

Because the manufacture of construction units takes place in a controlled environment, workers may be able to fabricate large portions of a structure with minimal or no exposure to threats like heights and harsh weather conditions. HVAC and air purification systems can also help minimize exposure to dust, chemical fumes and other dangerous particulate matter.

How Off-Site Construction May Help the Industry Meet Growing Multifamily Housing Demand

Lingering COVID-related challenges, like a tight labor market and volatile supply chain, have made it much more difficult for construction companies to meet the rising demand for multifamily housing. Off-site construction techniques can boost productivity, safety and efficiency — making it much easier for the industry to meet current consumer demand.

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