All the Environmental Benefits of Modular Buildings

There is plenty of evidence for modular construction as a key component of a green economy.

March 26, 2018, 10:00 AM PDT

By Kayla Matthews @KaylaEMatthews

Moshe Safdie

Habitat 67, designed by Moshe Safdie for the World Exposition of 1967, is an famous, early experiment in modular construction. | gary yim / Shutterstock

Modular buildings are partly assembled in factories to strict specifications, then brought to their permanent sites.

At that point, the buildings may already be fully put together or they’ll get finished on-site with cranes that stack one piece on top of another until the project’s completion.

There are several reasons why modular buildings help city planners and similar professionals green the footprint of the built environment. By thinking about long-term environmental sustainability as well as eco-friendly benefits, modular building construction sites are the clear choice for the future.

They Carbon Emissions Through Shorter Project Times

Environmentally-minded construction companies are always looking for ways to reduce emissions. In England, statistics say that the energy and fuel usage on building sites accounts for 33 percent of total emissions [pdf] in the construction sector.

However, the use of modular buildings could help reduce that percentage. That’s because it’s possible to build them in substantially less time than conventional structures, reducing the adverse environmental effects of the construction site itself.

For example, the construction time needed for a 135-bed hospital in Kingston upon Thames, London, was initially 35 weeks. However, the use of a modular process reduced the time of completion to just 19 weeks.

They Contain Eco-Friendly Components

One of the greatest advantages of modular buildings is the ability to order them with a full assortment of building materials and other features that are kind to the planet.

In one case study, a contractor at a United States Air Force base was hired to renovate the establishment’s facilities during a five-year agreement. The company needed a temporary place to house its employees for that time and wanted a modular building made with sustainability in mind [pdf].

The result was a 2,160-square-foot structure with a reflective white covering on the roof for better energy efficiency. Additionally, the construction company used recycled materials for the floor coverings and insulation.

However, it didn’t stop there. The builders also enhanced the modular building with LED light fixtures and plumbing in the restrooms designed to reduce waste. Both of those additions had sensors on them, ensuring they only activated when necessary.

They Help Companies Steer Clear of Wastefulness

Modular buildings can be good for the planet in another way—by equipping companies to avoid the unnecessary waste that can often accompany hastily planned upgrades.

A company called SnapCab offers standalone office spaces that can enhance an existing, non-modular structure by providing private areas in open office environments.

Instead of making companies go through the costly process of making permanent changes to their internal layouts, SnapCab Pods balance changing needs quickly and effectively without updates which could compromise productivity or result in going over budget.

It’s possible to move the Pods to another part of the building if needed, too. This reusability is another factor that’s good for the environment.

They Open Up More Opportunities for Green Construction Jobs

As stated in the 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study carried out by Booz Allen Hamilton, the green construction sector will create 1.1 million jobs by the end of 2018. Also, LEED-based construction projects will account for 386,000 of them.

According to the full report, LEED residential projects are forecasted at a higher-than-usual year-over-year (YoY) growth rate of 31.1 percent from 2015 to 2018, indicating growing interest from homeowners and builders. The expected YoY growth rate for LEED commercial projects for that same period is 8.5 percent, suggesting steady growth compared to past projections.

Data for homes built in the United States shows more than 388,000 are LEED registered or certified as of December 2017, with most achieving Gold certification. This confirms the belief that residential projects will play a role in LEED-motivated job creation and other economic benefits.

On the other hand, it’s also worth keeping commercial LEED projects in mind. Information from October 2017 indicates there are more than 92,000 of them completed.

The average estimated direct impact on a state’s GDP from LEED construction is an increase of $214 million in 2018. California, Illinois and Nevada are among the largest contributors to such economic benefits. Other states have also built impressive and frequently used LEED buildings.

At North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, builders constructed Mountaineer Hall, a student dormitory, faster than traditional methods alone by using modular construction when applicable. The project got LEED Gold certification shortly after its completion in early 2012.

In addition, that dormitory was finished nine months before [pdf] another student housing project built with non-modular construction. Not only did the traditionally constructed project take longer but it also had over 100 fewer beds.

Because the Mountaineer Hall project was so successful, it serves as a prime example for cities that are considering exploring green construction methods but still feel unsure about committing to the concept. It also demonstrates how modular buildings can complement an urban planner’s intentions to earn LEED certification for an upcoming project.

Due to these factors, modular buildings provide new opportunities for people interested in greening the footprint of the construction process, as well as the impacts of operating and maintaining the building after it's complete. As more projects deliver positive environmental outcomes for the construction companies involved, modular construction will continue to grow appeal.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a journalist and writer covering future tech and infrastructure topics for publications like The Week and VentureBeat. In her free time, she also manages and edits her tech blog,

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