A research chemist posed the question: "If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, isoamyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatechin, 3-galloyl epigallocatechin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it."
Tea, the master of chemical diversity, is a complex mixture containing all of the above and the most widely consumed drink in the world. If you know what you're doing, you only need tiny, standardised building blocks – atoms – to build a universe with everything in it, including tea.
The most complex organisms and spectacular phenomena are created by means of modular design. And if it has nature's signature on it, you can bet it is a proven and efficient system. If this is such an elegant approach, then why hasn't it been fully embraced on the construction site? Why hasn't prefab construction become mainstream if it's been around for more than a century?
Will the restrictions imposed by another little chemical compound – COVID-19 – see to it that projects finally become products with the helping hand of robots, 3D printing and off-site prefabrication?
The fragmented nature of the supply chain for property development has traditionally limited the industry's conversion to modular construction. A small building potentially comprising more than one million parts is typically supplied by up to 10,000 suppliers from 12-15 countries. In most instances, there is limited dependency between these suppliers, the parts they produce and the almost infinite permutations and combinations of building design.
However, COVID-19 is now making some countries across the world re-look at their global supply chains and question their nation's resilience for continuing to build in the wake of significant supply chain disruption, as evidenced by Australia's recent commitment to re-energising a manufacturing sector that has been hollowed out for 30 years with a $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy.
The construction industry is notorious for lagging behind in adopting advanced technologies. But post-March 2020, if you visit a site where only 25 per cent of the workforce is allowed and everyone needs to be 1.5 metres apart, the need for a big overhaul in thinking and behaviour quickly becomes apparent. Modular design is about flexibility, after all.
With the 26 letters of the alphabet, we produce endless books. With six Lego bricks, 915 million combinations are possible. Investing in Lego sets used to be more valuable than gold at certain points in time. Not bad for a company born in 1932 out of the need to use old wood from its predecessor – a failed carpentry business.
It's time to take a leaf out of Lego's book and turn our own productivity fails into opportunities for evolution. COVID-19 and social distancing rules are responsible for a projected drop in productivity by 30-40 per cent, while tighter immigration controls will worsen the current labour problem.
As one contractor describes the ramifications of COVID-19 on construction: the new normal is to 'live in suspense every day', waiting to see whether materials will arrive, how many workers will make it on site, which building has been put under quarantine, which districts are closed for testing.
It's been a long time coming
Modular construction was supposed to be the building style of the future. It hasn't always gone to plan – the first Disneyland resort built in 1960 by United States Steel used modular construction to much fanfare but resulted in significant cost and time blow-out.
However, much progress has been made since then, with 84 per cent of homes in Sweden now prefabricated using timber elements, compared to 15 per cent in Japan and 5 per cent in the U.S, U.K. and Australia.
Like Lego, prefab has been around for a long time. Modular construction dates back over a hundred years when Richard Sears developed 'kit houses' between 1908 and 1940 that were manufactured and then assembled on site, enabling middle-class families to become homeowners, courtesy of mass production's cost-saving virtue.
From the 40s through the 60s, modular construction enjoyed post-war booms, when speedy reconstruction and social housing were needed in the midst of steel and labour shortages.
Simply put, the pre-conditions haven't been right to create the disruptive forces that are necessary to change the supply chain across the industry. But this could all be about to change.
We need to be building over 13 000 buildings each day if we are to house a population of 10 billion people by 2050. COVID-19 is basically forcing us to build safer and smarter and let go of outdated techniques. Prefabrication, powered by digital technology and the use of timber, seems to be the answer in mitigating the damage and meeting these demands fast and sustainably. How is building a 57-storey tower in just 19 days for speed?
This revolution will also require a shift in the mindset of designers. Too many architects focus on creating an individual and bespoke design that will win awards. This needs to instead shift towards more of a design mindset of addressing a client's specific needs for functionality and performance by using a limited number of standardised parts and integrating them in a novel, repeatable way.
If we can shift thinking across the industry to one of combining standard parts, the supply chain (might) respond by manufacturing standardised parts. Realignment of supply chains from global to local will be further supported if designers start their design process with the question 'where does this part come from and can I source it locally?'.
No to the naysayers
The post-war, cookie-cutter solution for mass housing is what seems to stick in peoples' minds when they hear the word prefab. However, some companies are changing the perception that modular buildings are cheap, poor-quality eyesores.
One of the first architects to have shown the potential of the modular form was Frank Lloyd Wright with his cost-effective Usonian homes after the great depression in America. They were built using modular concrete blocks – the very same concrete blocks that were used for his famous Fallingwater house.
Stockholm's 79 & Park modular building with a cedar-clad façade, resembles a wooded hillside and also proves that low-cost housing can be beautiful.
Because it is mass-produced doesn't mean it has to be generic or monotonous. Would you describe Sydney's 101 George Street as boring, Brisbane's 25 King Street as uninspiring, or Dubai's planned Dynamic Tower as a cookie-cutter design?
The chemistry of change
With a 20-50 percent reduction in construction time, 20 percent reduction in costs, increased safety on site, reduced wastage, improved precision and quality, it seems like a no-brainer. Although the assembly-line efficiency and climate-controlled environment of a factory shave labour costs and shorten project schedules, it is the increased site safety that will be the major drawcard in a pandemic world.
Could social distancing, labour shortages and population growth be the drivers for scale and repeatability that modular design needs to finally take off as a mainstream solution?
Following on the heels of mainstream prefabrication will be mass customisation thanks to digitisation. The DFAB House is the world's first inhabited house which was both digitally planned and built with the help of robots and 3D printers. 3D printing reduces the need for standardisation that burdens traditional automation, leaving room for greater design freedom.
It's about better quality and a better concept than what we have today. Can we unravel the silver lining around the pandemic black cloud and bring the construction industry up to speed while creating a safe and productive working environment?
We have the tools, we have the technology, and now we have even more reason to create a new era modelled on the childhood game that probably inspired many players to take up a career in this industry in the first place: Lego.