Tom Greenough, Associate, Entuitive
Oliver Mason, Director of Operations, Z Modular
Azin Omidi, Associate Principal, WZMH Architects
Adrian Wang, Director, Innovation and Sustainability, Tridel
On January 29th, ULI Toronto held a sold-out members-only tour and panel discussion that took attendees to PCL Agile’s prefabrication and modular construction facility in Etobicoke.
“Offsite prefabrication of building components is not a new concept in construction but due to macro-economic trends and advancements in technology, it is experiencing a renaissance. Industrializing critical path components or full volumetric modularization is a viable solution to labour and cost constraints the industry is facing,” read the event description in an effort to contextualize the exciting period we’re in when it comes to prefabrication and modular construction.
As for the adoption of modular building worldwide, Canada is behind the US, Asia, Australia and the UK, where a 44 storey modular building in London was created. As event panelist Tom Greenough from Entuitive suggested, we are struggling to even create 4-storey modular buildings in Canada. There is promise for new standards to be enacted by the CSA, according to the panel. Everyone is anticipating the adoption of regulations that allow the efficiencies of modular building to be realized.
This was a fantastic event that showcased modular technology that already exists. As the Executive Director of ULI, Richard Joy, said: “this is a great example of the cool programming that ULI can offer” and was he ever right! It is not a dream to have modular construction impacting the industry. The PCL Agile team in Etobicoke pumped out $36 million in modular solutions in a year from this one location. Their calendar is getting full, and they are in need of more space. This PCL sponsored event allowed us to hear from some highly skilled thought leaders in the industry. To summarize the event, I think that PCL Agile manager Troy Galvin said it best, “we are building the same places but with much more automation and cost controls.” What an exciting time to be a part of this industry.
Gatherings like this will help drive modular construction forward within the appropriate environments. It isn’t that modular homes will be built with ease. While the process takes time builders who are early adopters may unlock many more efficiencies down the road. It’s no easy task to construct offsite, but as the graphic below illustrates, and from what our panelists suggested, the controls that you can have are far greater than on-site construction. The primary driver for prefabricated work is reliability — scheduling, costs, labour and delivery times. As panelist Oliver Mason from Z Modular pointed out, you cannot hang your hat on numbers for a typical work site construction development. There are too many environmental factors that can impede the build. The environment for prefabricated work opens up so many opportunities. Now you can control outcomes and eliminate a lot of waste by leveraging factory production principles. Architects and builders are adjusting and welcoming the idea of modular design. Panelist Azin Omidi’s company WZMH has been investing in developing new and innovative ideas on the subject of Prefab & Technology combined. Once the architects are fully involved, there is no telling how functional and aesthetically pleasing these modular builds can become.
Omidi described some of the innovative solutions that WZMH Architects has developed:
ISP “Intelligent Structural Panel” which WZMH has won the 2019 Award of Excellence by the Association of Canadian Consulting Engineering
Prefab solution (building block) with detailed focus on high-rise Residential sector
All of these solutions are highly technical and designed to help streamline production and living experiences. I highly recommend taking a look at some of their work.
It is interesting to note that all of these technology and control benefits also have a profound impact on safety. The fact that stress and costs of injury seem to be negligible in modular building was the most important takeaway from the event. Safety is a by-product of automation and environment. In proving the point, the PCL Agile site has had 501,000 hours with zero work-time losses! As Galvin shared with us, modular is six times safer than typical onsite construction methods . We as Canadians should also not forget the importance of climate controlled environments. Nobody wants to be building in – 20 Celsius temperatures. Modular building offers a way for the industry to be more profitable, efficient and safer during the winter months and in general. Let’s keep workers happy so that they can produce more!
The idea of increasing safety from controls opens the door to so many more efficiencies as well. Adrian Wang from Tridel alluded to the labour shortage issues and the impact on work-site developments. So much can go wrong with the stress of an outdoor work site. The planning that can go into modular building allows you to create a consistent flow of workers, where they enjoy the environment more, return to the same workplace every day, and don’t have to deal with the complexities within common work sites. All of this combines to create stable workforce management, where costs for the labour do not fluctuate greatly due to shortages. All of the planning that goes into modular building really does have immediate benefits. From the way that the factory is designed, you would think there is an assembly line of sorts that is allowing modules to be processed throughout various stages. That alone helps create labour efficiencies, where each module goes through phases, instead of workers being called in on the same day to get multiple tasks done at the same time. Workers can be called in exactly when they are needed and they don’t have to take elevators up and down during the task!
Here are some other benefits of working within the modular home framework:
The financial benefits are obvious, too! The industry is expecting growth levels between 2.5 to 3 times over the next three years in modular construction across North America. With that pace, architects and builders are being stretched and presented with extremely complex problems that need to be solved using modular design and build principles, in order to fulfill the projected growth. They might be feeling uneasy right now, but as architects adopt new practices, this industry may even grow beyond the 3 times projected. From the sounds of it, architects are adopting and embracing the idea of modular. It’s interesting to note that modular creates a large shift in where and when resources need to be deployed.
Omidi told us how all of their work is front loaded with modular projects. They have to spend more time to both design and develop the detailed technical solutions at the same time and at the onset of the project. In conventional construction projects, architects and engineers design at first and then think about the technical details in the contract documents phase, or sometimes even in the shop drawing phase. WZMH is deploying a lot of resources to manage this shift, and through the contributions that they are making, the end result will be a more streamlined process for the modular industry.
It is safe to say that Modular construction is revolutionizing the actual design process. Typically, the process involves 2D drawings to determine a build, but within the automation of modular, full 3D models are outlining where the last screw goes within a drywall board. The ease for the worker is improving exponentially because of the automation and technology improvements being made in the modular industry. The idea of parametric design is a fascinating component to modular building. It is a process based on algorithmic thinking that enables the expression of parameters and rules that, together, define, encode and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response. The conventional approach would involve trying to determine how to cut pieces in order to help build off-site projects. But everything has changed and we are now creating modules that rely on Revit models that are parametrically cut down so that builders like PCL Agile can build and package modules properly for shipment and installation. This sort of design capability allows a streamlined process to take shape, opening the door to even more benefits of modular building solutions.
PCL believes these are the main benefits to modular building:
Accelerated project turnover date
Improved cost certainty
Improved commissioning process
Better site access
Reduced congestion and trade stacking
Increased worker safety
Reduced workforce requirements, including camp and transportation costs
Decreased waste and net zero on-site project waste from manufactured elements
Lower Green House Gas (GHG) emissions due to less vehicle traffic to and from the jobsite
Mitigation against high-risk weather
Here is a link to a PCL Case Study that focuses on the efficiencies created from pre-fabricated work. There is a referenced 10% – 25% cost efficiency improvement based on. Beyond that efficiency improvement, PCL is delivering projects up to 50% faster than conventional building methods. All of the above is proof that modular is not an idea, but rather a functioning process that is giving opportunities for the industry to adopt right now.
The modular impact to the environment around us has significant potential. As Z Modular’s Oliver Mason mentioned, more developers are approaching his company to get projects going. I think as we become more enveloped with technology in our building processes, we will witness widespread adoption of modular building principles. The need for developers to return profits aligns perfectly with the modular solution. The necessity for high earnings is creating lots of benefits for this groundbreaking industry. From transportation savings, with less CO2 in the air, to fewer wasted materials, due to precision focused designs, this solution will continue to progress building automation, and will become more profitable for the investors involved. As Omidi mentioned, the more experience we gain within modular building projects, the more streamlined the process becomes, and the shorter the project turnaround times become. ULI Toronto is grateful for the chance to share these insights with industry experts and we look forward to the chance of doing it again soon.