At Home with Modular Construction

Simon Millman.
50,000 new homes are due to be built in the Emirates by 2029 for Emirati Nationals. It is hard to imagine how this will be efficiently achieved using the current method of individual design and specification.

Across the Gulf region we are seeing the key drivers of high population growth, social change and a need to support the population with access to more plentiful and better quality accommodation.

Increasingly sophisticated technology can now produce modular buildings that look convincingly like their traditionally built counterparts.

There is significant potential for modular construction to transform output and quality in government backed developments. 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. Increasingly sophisticated technology can now produce modular buildings that look convincingly like their traditionally built counterparts.

As well as the advances in the aesthetic appearance, there are also many other benefits of prefabrication including; a controlled environment where building elements can be produced more efficiently, modules can be produced to a consistently higher quality and building tolerances reduced to remove on site issues with in-situ construction of structure and finishes, health and safety is improved as fewer site operations are required and working conditions improve within factory environments, rather than on site where climatic conditions can be often harsh and restrictive.

As an example, a 40-week building programme for multiple units can be reduced to as little as 16 weeks. It has been proven elsewhere in the world that if used on a wide scale, this strategy could therefore promote rapid growth in the UAE’s housing stock.

At present there seems to be little understanding of modular construction within the local market and the use of modular construction in the UAE would demand a considerable culture change before people were able to embrace it as a real alternative.

Historically, availability of cheap labour has led to contractors choosing the traditional “in-situ construction” method possibly under the belief that it offers the cheapest solution.

In addition barriers may exist including a reluctance to disrupt local stronghold contractors and potentially divert investment away from these local beneficiaries as they are not specialists in this form of construction. Historically, availability of cheap labour has led to contractors choosing the traditional “in-situ construction” method possibly under the belief that it offers the cheapest solution. Modular construction can bring many opportunities if the region starts looking beyond the completion date of construction and more towards the whole life of a building which can form part of this shift.

Local examples of specialist companies offering modular construction are few; Ras Al Khaimah-based Unipod is currently leading a number of modular developments in the Middle East, including the Pearl where quality residential living spaces are being created in both high rise residential and villa projects. Modcon, also based in RAK, provided the modular components for the Al Ain Hospital and Gulf Prefabrication also offer a concrete based product being used in the region on isolated schemes.

If modular construction is to be seriously embraced, governments may need to lead the way by encouraging and possibly incentivising individual and volume build contractors to utilise these methods.

Faithful+Gould offers experienced consultancy support with all aspects of modular construction.