Think Modular

Is modular construction the answer to rising construction costs and real estate prices? Neha Bhatia asks the questions for Big Project ME

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For countless years, Danish toy manufacturer Lego’s products have littered the homes of parents around the world. Known for bright and colourful bricks which entice both children and adults to create entire cities replete with buildings of all kinds, Lego’s newest collection also includes monochromatic items, to encourage architects and designers too.

It is from those colourful bricks that Arjun Menon, managing director of Smart Box Industries in Dubai, takes inspiration to explain his firm’s service offering to the construction industry. Smart Box converts containers typically used by the cargo shipping sector into inhabitable spaces. While the technique is yet to catch on with the Middle East’s construction industry, the international building sector recognises it as ‘cargotecture’, a technique which incorporates the best of cargo containers and the discipline of architecture.

“Containers are like Lego blocks; the only difference is that they are 20 or 40 feet long,” Menon says. “These blocks can be stacked together vertically or horizontally, and joined together to create the required space. The blocks are insulated with rockwool, and the walls finished with a selection of wall cladding to produce a finished space on par with international construction standards.”

As of 1997, Smart Box was called PCTRS and relied heavily on the use of cargo containers due to the nature of its operations.

Menon says Dubai’s construction boom brought with it developers requesting that containers be converted into habitation solutions, “from offices and accommodation to engineering solutions such as diving decompression rooms and control rooms”.

“This demand started our container conversion business, and PCTRS became known as a regional container conversion specialist. We rebranded to Smart Box Industries in 2008, focusing purely on the growing application of shipping containers as a modular construction solution,” Menon adds.Understanding modular construction’s benefits was key to motivating Menon towards the futuristic construction ideology long before it became commonplace in the Middle East. Tom Hardiman, executive director of US-based nonprofit trade association Modular Building Institute (MBI), explains the advantages of modular construction methods.

“Modular construction is simply a different and more efficient manner to assemble the materials and components of a building,” he says. “Construction occurs in a controlled factory setting where the use of materials can be better managed and put to more efficient use, reducing waste as well as the redundant procurement of components.

“Site development and the construction of the building foundation are able to occur at the same time as the module construction occurs at the plant, which means a total 30% to 50% saving in time after the building is installed. This allows faster occupancy, which is especially important for families needing immediate shelter, retail space, rental units and hospitals, all of which can be accommodated with modular construction.”

Hardiman concedes modular construction techniques are not without flaws, but says the value they offer outweighs their shortcomings. They may frequently also be more expensive than traditional construction methods, owing largely to labour costs and the finishes ordered for the building.

“However, many international developers have pointed to modular as saving both time and money,” MBI’s chief adds. “For instance, multifamily apartment project developers of the Modules apartments in Philadelphia and the Stack project in Brooklyn have pointed to modular construction as the reason they saved both time and money on their projects.”

The Middle East market is also waking up to the benefits of prefabricated construction units and practices. Pre-engineered modules, such as concrete slabs and steel structures, are quickly taking centre stage where timesensitive projects have to be undertaken. Dubai has gone so far as to commission a modular designed cargo terminal project with a total annual capacity of up to 1.6 million tonnes.

Furthermore, industry experts suggest modular construction is an ideal tool to combat soaring real estate prices in Dubai. Simon Millman, operations director for Dubai at Faithful+Gould, believes modular housing can provide quality housing options at lower prices.

“Modular housing should not be considered to be cheaper and less imaginative, or to offer less flexibility in terms of special planning. On the contrary, it should offer the potential for better and more consistent quality, with far faster construction times,” Millman writes in an essay on Faithful+Gould’s website. “Increasingly sophisticated technology can now produce modular buildings that look convincingly like their traditionally built counterparts.”

Menon agrees with Millman, further stating that nuanced design elements can also be incorporated in modularly constructed spaces which can rub shoulders with Dubai’s lavishly designed tall towers. “Smart Box has prospects requiring up to seven-storey structures using modular construction. One such multi-storey project in the pipeline is to build contemporary one-bedroom apartment buildings. If designed to optimise the users’ interaction of space, a 46.4sqm space can also be immensely functional,” he argues.

“Once we perfect these designs, we can churn out a building every six months. The first building is intended to be in the affordable luxury segment as proof of product, with a rooftop garden, swimming pool and gym.

The ensuing buildings will be downsized and flexible for tenants, in order to ensure that people can live on cost-effective budgets without sacrificing on quality and standards.”

Menon has also worked in the commercial sector, on a project completed in November 2013 for Geo-Chem Middle East in Technopark, Dubai.

The 1,249sqm office building was constructed with 42 cube containers joined together, each 40 feet high. All units were manufactured in a factory and installed in four days.

It is a stark contrast from traditional methods in terms of time completion, but the basic premises of construction hold true even when a building is created out of modules, and as Hardiman explains, the modular construction provider should be involved at every stage of the building process.

“It is of key importance to bring the modular contractor or manufacturer into the building process as early as possible, as a part of the team. In many cases, a modular manufacturer is a subcontractor to a traditional general contractor on a project. However, in some cases a modular manufacturer may also be the general contractor, working directly with the end user.”

Modular construction has been accepted globally for its contribution to competitive real estate pricing, but its future, Hardiman says, depends on how intensely the traditional construction industry is educated about the intricacies and benefits of modular building.

“Education is definitely a hindrance to accepting modular construction, since it is uncharted territory for many architects and builders. For instance, choosing modular is often the greener answer for your construction project. Building in a factory promotes efficient use and reuse of tools and materials, as well as minimal disturbance to the job-site before and after module installation.”

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