It’s been a challenging year. Circumstances in 2020 have exacerbated certain business problems already at play in industries like construction, including skills gaps. The COVID-19 pandemic will also create the need for cities to look at different ways to design and build the smart cities of the future. After all, past pandemics—from the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages to the Spanish flu in the early 20th century—have prompted many changes to how cities are designed and built. Why would this one be different? Modular construction techniques will play an important role in helping not only the construction industry but also smart cities as they move forward into a post-COVID era.
According to the Modular Building Institute, a modularly constructed building refers to a construction process in which materials are delivered to an offsite location, assembled in components or three-dimensional building modules, and then transported to the final site for assembly. Prefabrication and modular construction have played a role in helping cities address the fast-changing needs for facilities like temporary hospitals and testing sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, to treat patients with COVID-19 earlier this year in China, the Huoshenshan Hospital was built in just a couple of weeks using prefabrication. Having proved its worth during times of great need, it’s likely that this construction technique will continue to gain ground even after the pandemic is over, helping smart cities meet their goals for sustainability and efficiency. This will become increasingly important due to the expected rise in urban populations thanks to urbanization.
Design firms and contractors are already on board. Dodge Data & Analytics’ Prefabrication and Modular Construction 2020 report suggests 93% of survey respondents believe modular construction improves productivity, 90% believe it improves quality, 90% believe it increases schedule certainty, 88% believe it improves cost predictability, 86% believe it reduces construction waste, 86% believe it increases client satisfaction, and 83% believe it improves safety performance. The top five most important drivers for increased use of prefabrication and modular construction during the next three years, according to the Dodge survey, include better project schedule performance, decreased costs, improved quality, the ability to alleviate skilled labor shortages, and improved project safety.
What sort of facilities will modular construction help cities build greenly, efficiently, and cheaply in the near future? Many of Dodge’s respondents (82%) listed healthcare facilities. Three in four (74%) listed hotels and motels, 71% said multifamily units, 57% said K-12 schools, 51% said public buildings, 50% said commercial warehouses, and 49% said manufacturing buildings. Down the road, elements of a smart city’s infrastructure, including transportation infrastructure, will likely also be built this way, offering an alternative solution to traditional construction for building and repairing the United States’ aging infrastructure.
Alternative construction techniques, along with technology, are going to revolutionize how smart cities are built in coming decades as the pressures of urbanization and climate change force cities’ hands. Companies like ICON are already applying technologies like 3D printing, robotics, and software, along with advanced building materials, to create entire communities in relatively no time at all, when compared to traditional construction techniques. If history is to be repeated, the COVID-19 pandemic will also help drive fundamental changes to the way society designs and builds its cities.
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