By: Kelly Martin, Ph.D., RID, ASID
One of our ASID Alabama chapter members recently expressed curiosity after seeing units of a home being brought in on a truck and assembled by crane within a very quick timeframe on a rural lakeside property. For this newsletter article, I decided to do some research to help answer a few initial questions about modular construction technology.
To begin with a personal story: Several years ago, I attended an educators’ conference in New York through which I met interior design college professors from universities across the United States. While having a casual conversation with one of the outstanding educators I met during this conference, my peer made a comment that I pondered for several years to come. She mentioned that when she builds her own “forever home,” it will be built with modular construction technology. Upon seeing the surprised look on my face, she explained that she desired a home built in this manner due to the high level of quality that would be attainable at a much lower price point than a traditionally built home and that she could not imagine having her home built any other way. Having never heard someone touting the benefits of modular construction, I was perplexed.
Fast forward to 2020: During the Covid-19 pandemic, modular construction saw a massive increase in demand due to its natural ability to overcome many of the issues with labor and supply which were exacerbated during the pandemic. The increase in demand for modular construction has continued ever since, with a plethora of companies now offering modular technology for a variety of building types including healthcare, private housing, multi-family housing, and general commercial spaces. Indeed, just this summer, the Center for Health Design is offering a virtual workshop in July 2023 (link in references below) explaining the benefits of modular construction and dispelling many of the myths. Clearly, interior designers can benefit from understanding some of the basics of modular construction–its processes and when it may be applicable to a project.
The Modular Building Institute (MBI) defines permanent modular construction (or PMC) as “an innovative and sustainable delivery method utilizing off-site and lean manufacturing techniques to prefabricate single or multi-story whole building solutions in deliverable volumetric module sections (2022).” MBI goes on to explain that PMC buildings can range in materiality including wood, steel and concrete. Additionally, it can be part of an overall site-built solution or involve a single turnkey solution. Some of the benefits PMC can offer are potential savings in time– increased sustainability and providing higher quality than traditional construction methods (MBI, 2022).
For a private family home, it is important to understand that a home built with modular construction technology is different from a mobile home or a manufactured home. In comparison, mobile homes are on wheels and may be moved after installation whereas manufactured homes must meet HUD standards, be installed on a permanent foundation and must meet the same local, state, and regional codes as traditional stick-built homes. According to many sources referenced at the end of this article, a modular home is essentially like any other stick-built home but with part of the construction process occurring off-site prior to delivery. To construct a modular home, multiple units (modules) of the home are constructed in a factory and then these units are shipped to the site where they are assembled on a permanent foundation. After this assembly on site, the process can look very much, or exactly, like a traditional on-site built home. Modular homes can vary in size from small to large, one to two story, and can have garages and wrap-around porches. They may be nearly indistinguishable in appearance from site-built homes.
The range of options in PMC means that modular homes exist not only in the moderately priced range of the market but also at the extreme high end of the market, with luxury second homes in remote areas being a prime example. Designers working with clients whose homes may be in challenging terrain such as a ski lodge on a mountain, may use PMC to save time and to avoid possible headaches of logistical supply, labor shortages and weather delays that may be encountered with a traditional on-site construction process. After assembly, the designer may choose to employ skilled tradespeople for additional components such as millwork, often a very smooth process since modular homes are typically built with a high level of precision. According to homelight.com, the climate-controlled factory setting where units are built means modular homes can have almost perfectly straight walls and exact corners. Other benefits may involve coordination with code officials, which many modular manufacturers offer as part of a standard package, ensuring that local, state and regional building codes are met as a standard part of the process. Additionally, cost can be clearly estimated “up front.” Lastly, modular homes are often considered energy efficient and sustainable. Academic researchers are currently investigating their level of sustainability in terms of embodied energy and life cycle cost, and developing frameworks for decision-making concerning construction methods with regard to sustainability (Kamali, Hewage, & Sadiq, 2022; Pervez, Ali, & Petrillo, 2021).
An initial review of the modular residential market indicates to me that there is a vast range of differences in quality and options for customization available. Interior designers could benefit from spending time researching many of the manufacturers on the market and interviewing specific ones of interest prior to working with a client on a specific design solution. Some manufacturers allow for minor customization from their selection of floor plans, and some can build a completely custom design. This would involve a plan review with the designer beforehand to ensure that the home can be constructed in a modular fashion without major changes to its appearance. Some manufacturers will be a better fit than others in working with an interior designer as not all offer the same options for customization. The designer would be wise to communicate with a manufacturer of interest as early as possible in the design process as there are certain best practices for design for modularization. There are several established manufacturers here in Alabama with some very creative solutions as well as others across the country that may be of interest.
Modular building construction technology is clearly a promising solution with many benefits. However, like many things in life, it does not have to be an “all or nothing” solution for a given project. The programming phase of a project will lead to an answer for each individual project based upon the designer’s research in terms of whether PMC will be a beneficial solution. Keep in mind that your peers in ASID and the knowledge bank provided through ASID can be of great help when making these decisions.
(Disclaimer: A mix of scholarly works and non-academic sources is listed below. Non-academic sources are NOT referenced by the author as an endorsement of any particular company or organization; their websites were reviewed for generally informative purposes only).
Affinity A Vantem Company: https://affinitybuildingsystems.com/about-affinity/
Center for Health Design: Workshop: Modular Design and Prefabrication in Healthcare: Balancing Better and Faster with Quality | The Center for Health Design
Homelight. “What Is a Modular Home, And Should I Consider Buying One?” Blog posting. Retrieved June 2023 at: https://www.homelight.com/blog/buyer-what-is-a-modular-home/
Kamali, M., Hewage, K., & Sadiq, R. (2022). Economic sustainability benchmarking of modular homes: A life cycle thinking approach. Journal of Cleaner Production, 348, 131290.
Modular Building Institute (MBI). 2022 Permanent modular construction report. Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, online: https://www.triumphmodular.com/wpcontent/uploads/2020/06/2015-PMC-RB-AnnualReports.pdf
Pervez, H., Ali, Y., & Petrillo, A. (2021). A quantitative assessment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from conventional and modular construction: A case of developing country. Journal of Cleaner Production, 294, 126210.
Salama, T., Moselhi, O., & Al-Hussein, M. (2021). Overview of the characteristics of the modular industry and barriers to its increased market share. International Journal of Industrialized Construction, 2(1), 30-53.
Shine, E. (2021). The 10 Best Modular Prefab Manufacturers in Alabama. Attainable Homes. Attainable Media, LLC. Retrieved June 2023 from https://www.attainablehome.com/alabama-10-best-prefab-modular-homebuilders/
Kelly Martin, Ph.D., RID, ASID, is an Interior Design Lecturer at Auburn University whose passion for teaching and research centers on interior design for human health and well-being.
Kelly Martin, Ph.D., RID, ASID
Senior Lecturer, Interior Design
Department of Consumer and Design Sciences
Mailing 308 Spidle Hall. Office 173A Spidle Hall
O: 334.844.4084 | M: 256.577.8630