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Modular Design is Changing the World: Architecture is Next

Discover what is a modular design, how it influences architecture now and how it will in the near future! We have added a few interesting examples of practices where modular design works really well!


Modular design is…

Modular Design is the concept of having separate modules which are built-in isolation to then come together to create a working unit. 

The modules can work separately and be put together in a different way, allowing for endless possibilities of design and repair.

The most known example of modular design is every architect’s favorite toy: LEGO.

It is no surprise that architects are eager to bring their brick creations to the real world.

The idea of modularity is applicable to several different industries. Take electronics for example.

Phonebloks

In the past nine years, over 570 million iPhones are disposed of mostly because only one part of the phone broke.

While it’s a composite device, it’s also a complete aesthetic. 

If the screen cracks eventually the camera will stop working or the battery explodes. 

One broken part made the entire phone unusable.

phone design phonebloks
[Phonebloks]  – [ExtremeTech]

The solution to this came as a phone design called Phonebloks

With their modular phone concept rather than throwing a damaged item away, Phonebloks would produce modular components. 

This allowed customers to simply fix the broken area themselves while customizing it. 

Reducing the amount of electronic waste would not just help the environment, but also the consumer. 

Modular Design in Architecture

The concept and adoption of a modular design can drive this on a massive scale, especially when incorporated into the architecture.

Modular elements in architecture can be anything from an entire building to solar panels and wind turbines. 

It doesn’t have to follow a specific style. 

It is merely characterized by the partitioning into scalable and reusable models, aiming to make us of the industry standards for interfaces.

Architecture can either be integral or modular. 

Most architecture is somewhere in between those two designs. 

Fully modular or fully integral architecture barely exists.

Modular design can be very beneficial if done right. 

It combines the advantages of standardization with those of customization.

The option of off-site construction allows for lower cost, faster build times and sustainability. 

Beginnings of Modular Architecture

Post War

Prefab in the United Kingdom
[Letchworth Prefabs]  – via Wikipedia by [SimonTrew]

When someone refers to ‘Modular’ in Architecture, you’d be forgiven for thinking of “prefab” post-war concrete cubes, created to house a transient population. 

Postwar buildings constructed as temporary solutions to a space problem which eventually turned into established constructions. 

Many became schools which left the students cold in winter and hot in summer.

Modular architecture uses Prefabricated materials.

However “Prefab” is a colloquial, catch-all term for the post-war, outdated modular building which uses old materials in a predictable way. 

Luckily for the school children of today, technology, and construction processes have come a long way since then.

Schools can upgrade their existing buildings or create new modular buildings for half the cost.

Modular architecture can decrease construction time so significantly, that the money usually spends on labor costs can go into the materials.

more money can be spent on the materials used for the construction that otherwise would have been spending on labor costs. 

So, more high-quality materials can create a better building.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Usonian homes, early modular architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright

[Prefab by Frank Lloyd Wright]  – [Curbed]

One of the first Architects to really show the potential of the Modular form was no other than Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the aftermath of the great depression in America, there was a requirement for cost-effective housing. 

So, in the mid-1930s, he designed what he termed “Usonian Homes”. They were built using modular concrete blocks and had few decorative features, no basement or attic. 

One of his most famous homes “Falling Water” utilized the same concrete blocks that did his Usonian Homes. The same elegance and beauty exist within their wide-sweeping concrete eaves and the strong lines that imply confidence within their surroundings. 

Proving that even historic modular architecture can be unique and beautiful.


Related Article: The Most Amazing 88 Contemporary Architects And Their Work


Modern-day Modular design

BIG – 79 & Park

79 & Park Stockholm, BIG, modular modern architecture
[79 & Park]  – [BIG]

Bjarke Ingels is a pioneer when it comes to modern, sustainable design.

It is of no surprise that he was the one to create some of the best modern examples of modular designs. 

His studio, BIG, just completed an apartment block, 79 & Park, in Stockholm. 

This modular building is reminiscent of a wooded hillside, with cedar clad facade and a central courtyard. 

Prefabricated designs were used to create a flexible and affordable build.

Scandinavian design is a good foundation to implement modular design as it is by nature more simplistic. 

Due to the saving of construction and material costs, BIG was able to build affordable housing for low income citizens in Denmark that still look luxurious.

nArchitects – Carmel Place

carmel place, tallest modular building in New York city by nArchitects
[Carmel Place]  – [nArchitects]

The design by nArchitects won a New York competition aiming to combat the overpopulation and accommodate the growing number of small households. 

The 9 story tower was built remotely and separately, saving the costs of on-site developments. 

It is the first micro-unit apartment building in New York as well as the tallest modular buildings in the city. 

The modules are partly affordable and partly more high end rentals. 

Challenges of modular design

Loss of originality

Large sweeping forms and beautiful curves might end up a thing of the past. 

Far harder to construct than modular forms, feats of engineering and speciality design, might be rendered an unnecessarily costly and time consuming endeavour for architect and client. This could spell the end of organic forms like Corbusier’s Cathedrale de Ronchamp.

With a potential global design uniformity that comes from the widespread popularity of Modular Architecture, could come even more restrictions. 

The cultural heritage and individuality of architectural design is in danger to be lost. 

Perhaps an architecture for the globe would just mean everything looks the same. 

The value of buildings used to be measure in the amount of time and effort it took to construct it. Theoretically speakings, this would mean modular buildings aren’t as valuable as more complex structures. 

We need to be careful that through the adoption of modular design, consideration for a building’s cultural heritage, purpose, and surroundings stay front of mind so the world doesn’t become a uniformly grey place.

It seems that the real test for the architect of the future, will be creating unique works of art using modular components. 

An issue that arises is the excess costs of over-designing, in order to make the construction stand out. This can lead to inefficient performance. 

Public Opinion

Another aspect that’s important when looking at modular design is the opinion the public has on it. 

This is particularly important in the real estate business. 

While modular constructions have come a long way from being a low-budget and low quality option, they are still not in the same league as ‘stick- built’ homes.

The stigma that came with the early designs is still very present. 

Modular constructions can be even better quality than buildings constructed on site. 

The factory settings, in which contractors build the different parts allow for way stricter and more intense quality control. 

Contractors and designers are aware of this, but it might still take some time to convince the public of the benefits. 

When it comes to architecture, it seems like a safe bet to trust into tradition. 

Not many are willing to take the leap and choose a prebuilt home over a ‘built from scratch’ house. 

10 examples of modular design


Advantages of modular design

The simplification of design is also a benefit of Modular Architecture. 

The uniformity of design and temporary nature means they are easily customisable for future use.

For example, when creating temporary housing for refugees, they will be quicker and cheaper to assemble. 

From a sustainability perspective, when constructing buildings that don’t permanently impact their environment. 

It could also increase their longevity. 

As anyone who has undergone the process of extending their home knows, building additions or changing old existing buildings is costly. 

Modular buildings built now are fully adjustable.

In 10 years time the parts can be either swapped or replaced with new parts within the same design system.

Owners could slowly build an extension. Paying for it as and when is possible, rather than having to do it all in one go.

It would also limit the issue of having to follow heritage listing regulations and use expensive subcontractors to produce a build in keeping with the existing design.

Future modular architecture

Sustainability

Using modular design in architecture is increasingly important. 

Upgradability, serviceability and flexibility are only a few of its characteristics. Being able to adapt and improve existing structures with less hassle and money is important for the architecture of the future.

With overpopulation and non-renewable resources, modular designs can help combat these issues around the world. 

The designs are much faster to built, responding to the constant need of new housing. 

In areas where nature affects architecture this can also come in beneficial.

When there is damage to a part of the construction, it is easier to replace a single uni, than the entire house.

Designers can develop parts of the buildings over time and solve occurring problems offsite.

The components are then usable in different ways on future projects. 

Project Managers love Modular too. 

Manufacturing of component parts and test builds can happen alongside groundwork, water, and utility services work during the building phase. 

Sounds appealing when time is money.

Customisability

With the customisability, the lack of originality shouldn’t turn into more of an issue than with more integral architecture.

Most don’t want to live in different colored boxes like Post-war housing in Britain. 

But humans are individuals and even if our houses are all made up of the same materials, personalities will always shine through and turn them into homes.

Modern buildings already follow a similar style, as did the buildings during other time periods.

Modular Architecture – Are you ready?

The benefits of modular design in architecture outweighs the doubts that still come with it.

The opinion of the public is a big factor that makes modular buildings less popular.

But with the growing interest in sustainability and urbanisation that opinion is going to change sooner rather than latter.

Modern architects such as Bjarke Ingles are paving the way for a customisable and interchangeable way of construction.

Having a common style for modern architecture is inevitable.

And maybe the style of our future will be modular design.

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