2nd October 2020
Modular Construction in a Post-COVID World

In our blogs over the past few months, we have explored in depth the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the construction sector. We watched as construction activity plummeted, and observed as the industry fought to return to normal as lockdown restrictions eased. Now, new research shows that some sectors look set to see boosted growth as a direct result of the pandemic.

For example, AMA Research estimates that the prefabricated volumetric building sector will grow by 14% between 2020 and 2024[1]. This offsite building method, which involves the manufacture and assembly of three-dimensional buildings (or ‘modules’) ready for installation on site, is predicted to be a key component in both meeting the UK’s urgent housing needs and compensating for the growing shortage of traditionally skilled construction workers. It doesn’t hurt that delivering buildings almost entirely ready to install will help limit workers’ time on site and help facilitate social distancing.

Need for speed

While modular building and offsite construction methods are by no means new, they were certainly thrust back into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic as much needed healthcare infrastructure was delivered within weeks or even days. With hospitals anticipating a huge influx of coronavirus patients, emergency hospital facilities were swiftly ordered across the country and constructed using modular techniques. The new Nightingale Hospital Exeter, which comprised five modular buildings spanning more than 1,700 square metres, was constructed in just four weeks. Meanwhile, the speedy transformation of the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London into a 4,000-bed, 20-acre hospital was followed with awe on social media. It took just nine days.

The future of healthcare infrastructure?

In response to the pandemic, the NHS has published a Technical Guidance document to support the procurement and installation of modular buildings for NHS use, with a list of preferred suppliers and a wide range of generic and bespoke units available for order, including:

  • Temporary GP surgeries
  • Standard bedded wards
  • Temporary mortuaries
  • Portacabins
  • Shower blocks/changing facilities
  • Quarantining areas

And it looks like the role of modular construction in the fight against COVID-19 is far from over. In early September, Premier Modular was awarded a multi-million-pound contract for the delivery of 25 modular COVID-19 test centres as the UK acts to ramp up its testing capacity in time for winter.

An ‘education’ in new techniques

With the government investing £1bn in building 50 new schools starting in 2021, modular construction techniques could also be set to take the education sector by storm. Not only are more schools required, but classroom capacity also needs to be increased to accommodate social distancing between students to ensure that in-person teaching can continue successfully. That’s where the speed and cost-effectiveness of modular construction could come in extremely useful. For example, it could be used to deliver buildings quickly at times that cause the minimum amount of disruption for students, for example during the summer holidays. Meanwhile, modular units could be used to provide temporary teaching space while construction works are underway.

Rebuilding our nation

Evidence shows that the construction industry is on the road to recovery – but not at the pace required to tackle the urgent needs of post-lockdown Britain using traditional methods alone. Offsite construction techniques mean that building assembly can start while groundworks are still being laid on site, greatly speeding up projects including the delivery of much-needed healthcare infrastructure, educational establishments and housing. Meanwhile, as coronavirus cases once again mount in the UK, the highly controlled and process-driven nature of factory work means that social distancing and contact tracing will be much easier to control than with onsite projects, where workers are more likely to be itinerant and move around from site to site. We look forward to watching the modular construction sector go from strength to strength in the coming months and years.