The Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) sector falls behind other industries in terms of its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards. Its significant environmental impact, accounting for one-third of global energy consumption, is primarily attributed to waste-heavy and energy-intensive supply chains. Additionally, the industry faces issues such as hazardous working conditions, frequent cost overruns, and delays caused by complex workflows, impacting housing affordability.
To address these ESG challenges, one potential solution is modular construction. It involves manufacturing building components in a factory and assembling them on-site. Prefabricated modular units range from simple flat-pack elements to complex MEP assemblies and fully constructed bathrooms.
While off-site construction has been a niche approach, advancements in digital technology have overcome some of the traditional limitations in off-site construction. Digital tools enable detailed planning, optimized module design, streamlined workflows, and improved delivery logistics. Consequently, off-site construction has emerged as a viable solution to various social and environmental challenges associated with conventional on-site methods.
Prefabrication Has the Potential to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Construction
Prefabrication reduces construction’s environmental impact by minimizing waste and optimizing material usage. Sustainable materials like wood are used in the manufacturing of prefabricated components, which are produced in controlled environments. With off-site construction, less material needs to be transported to the site, resulting in lower emissions. Moreover, the factory setting reduces human error, optimizes workflows, and allows for simultaneous foundation work while modular units are assembled. These environmental optimizations lead to several benefits, including reduced carbon emissions from vehicles, decreased heating or cooling requirements at construction sites due to shorter construction time, and minimized noise and dust pollution at the site.
Prefabricated building units can be easily disassembled and reused, reducing waste at the end of their lifecycle. It is estimated that modular construction reduces material usage and waste by 50% and 80%, respectively, during on-site work. Prefabrication improves safety by reducing workplace accidents through controlled factory environments and limited time spent on the construction site. It also offers better working conditions, especially in areas with labor shortages.
Prefabrication offers cost savings and social benefits
Prefabrication provides social benefits beyond improved worker well-being. It helps address the urgent need for affordable housing by enabling quick and efficient construction of high-quality units at a lower cost and in less time than traditional methods. This approach is also applicable to community-serving infrastructure like schools and hospitals, as demonstrated during the Covid emergency when China rapidly built new hospitals using modular construction. Digital technology is expected to further enhance the cost and time-saving potential of off-site construction.
The construction industry is undergoing a transformation driven by digitalization and automation, with prefabrication playing a significant role. It is shifting from a project-based approach to a product-based one, where construction sites become assembly points for pre-engineered parts. This transition increases the demand for building information modeling (BIM) and data-sharing solutions that connect various stakeholders throughout the construction project’s phases. Integrated platforms that optimize building design and construction by linking the office and the field are particularly valuable in this context.
The Construction Sector Needs Digital Solutions
Integrated solutions enable customers to monitor project complexity in real time based on location and status. These purpose-built solutions provide an easy-to-use interface for effective planning and support of material coordination, workforce planning, and construction management. Prefabrication methods are being adopted due to tight schedules and labor shortages. BIM-focused reality analysis platforms address these challenges by offering automated workflow tools to detect and fix mistakes, reduce rework, prevent delays, and provide accurate financial visibility.
Reality capture technology enables precise layouts and measurements in construction projects. By combining robotic total stations with prefabricated elements, accuracy is maximized, and the advantages of different materials can be effectively integrated. This technology allows for the creation of sophisticated and flexible off-site component systems that can be integrated into traditional construction, overcoming the perception of modular construction as limited in design options. Software modeling and simulations further enhance building designs and optimize prefabrication, speeding up construction and reducing waste.
The integration of modular construction and digitalization holds great potential for transforming the AEC sector into a more sustainable and efficient industry. Despite the daunting challenge of meeting growing construction demands with limited resources and labor shortages, this convergence offers a chance to reimagine construction practices for the betterment of society, the environment, and overall well-being.