Engineering for Modular Prefabricated Architecture

In today’s fast-paced global world, smart engineering is a game-changer in modular design for buildings: enclosures, shelters, industrial, institutional, commercial, and residential applications. With an assembly system, modular construction is more than just a puzzle. It’s a solution that builders, architects, and consultants can utilize with faster deployment, precision quality control, and more environmentally friendly methods than traditional construction.

Designed and built indoors in a controlled and protected environment away from the vagaries of the weather, these self-contained units—complete with walls, floors, and other similar components—are then transported, assembled, and stitched together at the construction site. It’s not a new process, but one that has been gaining traction in Canada lately.

The Evolution of Design and Construction
As engineers, we have observed the trends in the construction of prefabricated, modular buildings in Canada. During the past decade, the evolution of design and construction has taken a leap with the transition from electronic drafting to high-resolution digital modeling (also known as Building Information Modeling or BIM). Ubiquitous digital connectivity, cloud computing, 3-D printing, and big data are just a few of the evolving drivers that are responsible for the current melding of engineering, architecture, fabrication, construction, and other related disciplines.

Today, all these factors set the stage for revolutionary change and have helped prefabrication and modular construction make a comeback at a time when low cost, resource efficiency, and tight schedules are priorities. In essence, we are witnessing the undoing of 100 years of expansive industry fragmentation with contractors and designers alike taking on the role of master builders again.

Taking an Active Role
At Loring, we are taking an active role, contributing to the execution of prefabricated buildings by understanding their systems, and interjecting our expertise where and when they would have value. There are many intricate details that have to be considered. In that regard, we find the more complex aspect of modular buildings is finding the balance between “custom” and “efficient”. The latter would mean for builders to offer standardized solutions. In either case, understanding the assembly of parts and how mechanical and electrical systems would work within those parts improves if the engineers are not only well-versed in the area, but are also part of the design team from the initial planning stages.

Although prefabrication is not new, our findings show the industry in Canada is still struggling to adapt this manufacturing and construction methodology at a broad level. With the rapid emergence of innovative technologies, such as augmented reality and 3-D scanning, it is easy to get caught up all in the hype rather than finding intricate, human-centric solutions.

Moving Forward with Modular Design
In order to move forward with this fast-paced, innovative technique we, as an industry, must reevaluate the steps. Typical modular builders do not get into a full site work package and there are often a lot of hidden costs. It would be wise to understand the builders’ capabilities and limitations. One consideration is the site work; typically, a builder will fabricate the building components in a factory then ship the modules to the site. However, there is often a host of site work that is required in advance. While some builders have made more progress than others, the industry as a whole still has a long way to go to increase productivity and overcome project inefficiencies. Even so, there is a distinct undertone of emergence that presents growing concerns and opportunities for the successful company of the future. Master builders have to tackle and solve new questions and problems that may be presented, including:

  • What will the construction/manufacturing/design firm of the future look like?
  • What role will prefabrication play, and what happens if your company doesn’t begin the learning curve? What are the engineering solutions that could expedite the process?

These questions, and today’s “design, engineering, and construction industry” organizations will likely be positioned very differently 10 to 15 years from now.

At Loring, we will continue to study and analyze these evolutionary trends and provide insights into this critical area on an ongoing basis.