Build anything: Unlocking the potential of modular construction

June 13, 2023
A concept rendering of a mixed-use building that could be built with modular construction.

One of the misconceptions about modular construction is that it’s only useful for certain types of projects, like single family homes, townhouses or small apartments, but Big Block VP of Operations Ben Miller says that’s not the case.

“With mod, you can technically build anything,” he said. “There's no limit on modular construction that exists, outside of what's already there for municipal or code regulations.”

There are situations where a project isn’t the right fit for modular, and Big Block is happy to choose a stick build in those situations. As a development partner, we strive to serve our clients in the most efficient way possible and projects need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

That said, modular construction is becoming increasingly sought-after for building wood-frame multi-family developments across the housing continuum, including townhouses and low to mid-rise residential and mixed-use complexes.

Kensington Flats apartments in Saskatoon.
Kensington Flats in Saskatoon won the Saskatoon & Region Home Builders' Association Best Apartment Style Project.

Big buildings from small blocks

The largest project Big Block has completed is an award-winning 63-unit, 70,000 square foot three storey condo building with underground parking, and we’re currently in the process of designing preliminary concepts for five and six-storey mixed-use complexes estimated at 60-80 units and 4,000 - 12,000 square feet of commercial space, with or without underground parking and rooftop terraces. 

At Big Block, we specialize volumetric wood-frame modular construction up to 6 storeys, though with steel-frame modular building, the sky's the limit. The world title of tallest volumetric steel modular-built building is held by the 44-storey tower at 101 George Street in South London, UK, and seconded by its 34-storey sister tower next door, both completed in 2020. In China, the city of Changsha made headlines in 2015 when a 57-storey, 800-unit skyscraper was erected over just 19 working days using prefabricated modular components. In 2021, Changsha once again demonstrated the power of modularity by erecting a 10-storey high-rise apartment block in 28 hours.

The Canadian home building industry has been relatively slow to adopt modularity, but each construction season we see more developers taking modular to new heights. In May 2023, Bird Construction in B.C. announced they will be constructing the tallest volumetric modular building in Canada at 14 storeys. CMHC’s Housing Accelerator Fund is also expected to remove red tape at the local level, which could further incentivize modularized construction.

The beauty of modular construction

Another misconception is that modular buildings aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but Ben notes that any exterior design can be applied just as well to modular as to a stick build.

“Once all the bare boxes are craned into place, you're in the same position as a stick-built construction, and you can use any material you desire on the facade,” he said. “There really are no limitations on what we can do.”

Of course, detailing any building with higher-end or unique exterior finishes comes at a cost. A modular-built building meant to be affordable will by its nature need to choose cost-effective roof lines, minimalist detail, and modest siding materials to preserve affordability. 

“It depends on your target market and what the market allows,” Ben said.

A closeup of the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Round Prairie Elders' Lodge in Saskatoon
Detail on the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Round Prairie Elders' Lodge in Saskatoon.

Big Block works with experts and consultants, both in-house and external, to ensure each building complements the neighbourhood, matches the client’s budget, and its suitability for modular construction is properly vetted. Part of that includes educating architects about modular construction and how to design for it on an accelerated timeline.

“It's important to have architects who understand modular construction or are willing to learn how to best design for it,” Ben said. “While you can do anything with modular, there are still constraints that architects need to plan around.”

A building may be designed to be constructed through modular factory-built techniques, traditional site-built methods, or a combination of the two, so understanding the constraints are key to an efficient design.

Some of the constraints in modular builds are similar to stick builds. For example, the more consistency between modules in a building design, the more efficient it will be to manufacture on an assembly line in the factory, and the same goes for site-built projects. In a six-storey residential building, levels two, three, four and five will likely have the same floor plan to make construction easier.

“Choosing exterior design materials, colours, and roofs is no different from selecting mechanical or electrical systems,” Ben said. “It all needs to be done through collaboration with consultants and integrated design.”

Detail on the Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. (CUMFI) Community Homes in Saskatoon.

Vetting partners to design and build high-quality mods

Integrating the right partners is key to constructing a high-quality building that lasts for generations to come. When it comes to procuring quality partners for architectural, engineering, and manufacturing roles on a modular construction project, vetting their qualifications and willingness to participate in a collaborative process is key.

As a development partner, Big Block tailors procurement for each developer we work with, and ensures alignment with our proven process to continue our streak of delivering every project with zero change orders. As in any industry, we’ve seen consultants and factories range from sub-par to excellent quality. Modular construction requires an integrated design process, which involves a high level of collaboration and planning before the development permit to ensure a successful outcome – but not all firms or companies are prepared to commit to evolving their design approach.

Sadly, integrated design processes remain underutilized in many projects led by well-meaning developers and design partners attracted to the benefits modularity provides, and there are heartbreaking stories out there of building owners and communities left wanting after occupancy. One such story of modular-built development gone wrong is Winnipeg’s troubled 25-unit Centre Village, now facing demolition 13 years after it was completed.

The learning curve of modular can be difficult and steep if you go it alone, as the horror stories suggest, but don’t let that deter you – it is easier than you think to partner up and leverage the experience of Big Block and our pre-vetted partners for a seamless, risk-free process.

The power of a consistent assembly line

After designing and building dozens of modular construction projects, and touring dozens of factories, Big Block has learned that consistency on the factory assembly line is key to high quality modules. With consistency and strong standard operating procedures in place, a modular facility can better handle employee turnover and produce a more consistent product compared to stick-built.

These consistent results are especially noticeable when it comes to airtightness and energy efficiency, says Ben.

“The difference between hitting an excellent or average to sub-par number for air tightness rating comes down to a small number of people on the job site, and in a factory setting you’re more likely to hit that excellent rating due to the consistent operating procedures.”

The interior of a newly craned module at the Silver Sage Housing Corporation Horse Dance Lodge / misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp in Regina.

Additionally, each of the modular components that make up a building are designed to be more robust than code so that they can handle transportation and craning effectively. Each box is built with its own walls, ceiling, and floor, creating redundant structures between units.

“Mods feature protective barriers and structural reinforcements to withstand transportation, but once it’s there, it helps each unit to be self-contained,” said Ben.

Modules built as separate, enclosed boxes mean each unit is more self-contained, which by design can result in less transfer of smells and sounds between units than in a build using traditional construction methods.

Fire risk is also lower — in traditional construction, a large investment of time, work, and money is put into the project before fire separation is complete. In 2018, fires happened twice in one month at a construction site in Saskatoon.

“With modular construction, as soon as the box is craned, all fire separations are already in place,” said Ben.

Some factories adopt modular manufacturing in part, essentially using stick-build methods under a roof, which will mitigate weather-related problems, but doesn’t give projects speed and consistency. It’s the facilities that manufacture modules on assembly lines that are best set up to maximize productivity, maintain quality control, and expand capacity for multi-unit residential projects.

Modular construction is an excellent choice for permanent, purpose-built multi-family rental housing, mixed-use buildings, and especially for rapid housing initiatives because work can be done on site and in the factory at the same time, condensing construction timelines and accelerating occupancy.

By embracing the potential of modular and selecting the right partners, developers can leverage innovation to accelerate occupancy and use cutting edge technology to build at full throttle.

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