A Look at Modular construction
As the labor crisis rumbles on, the construction industry faces continued struggles to get enough workers on site. So how about tackling the problem the other way around? How about taking the construction projects to the workers? Connor Butler explains why modular construction can be a very cost-effective option – but why it also requires a completely different mindset.
We all know the problems. As if the supply chain crisis wasn’t bad enough, the construction industry continues to struggle with an acute shortage of skilled (and unskilled) labor. I know of many organizations that have felt compelled to increase wages significantly to attract workers from further afield – but that’s clearly not a sustainable model.
And this is not just a problem for employers. Construction workers may be enjoying a surge in pay but they’re also leading unsettled and increasingly migratory lives, without many of the reassurances and comforts that people in other industries enjoy. And as much as we might like to pin the blame for the labor squeeze on other factors such as COVID-19, the reality is that this has been a problem in the construction world for a long time – and the way we treat our workers is the principal cause.
That’s an issue that I’ll be coming back to in the future but, in this blog, I want to look at one option that can help to mitigate aspects of the labor crisis, as well as bringing other benefits. You’ve probably heard of it – it’s called modular construction. It’s not always the solution, but it can be a very useful tool to have in your kit.
A new mindset
The thinking behind modular is to turn construction into an offsite manufacturing process. Instead of trying to get workers to your project, you take the construction work to them. The build is manufactured in purpose-built facilities and then shipped onsite for assembly.
The modular approach is quicker and simpler than traditional construction where, as we all know, so much of the project has to be tackled in a certain order, leading to inevitable hold-ups. With modular, your team can work on different aspects of the build in parallel. You can develop a culture that everyone buys into. Much less time is wasted and you don’t need as many people. It’s a model that also offers a positive option for workers who would rather be based in one location, rather than travelling from state to state looking for the next gig.
Modular isn’t a panacea for the labor crisis, or for any of the other challenges that the construction industry faces but, if you’re prepared to embrace a completely different mindset, it’s a very useful option.
What exactly is the problem?
So what are some of the issues you need to think about? First, this is a solution to a business problem. So for it to be effective, you’ve got to understand exactly what your problem is, and what lies behind it. A lot of organizations don’t take the trouble, or find the time, to fully understand these challenges. ‘Labor shortage’ is often the catch-all headline but there may be many underlying nuances as to why and how your particular organization is affected.
Second, modular should never be managed the way that traditional site construction is. The most successful operators in this area strip back all their assumptions and start afresh in building the process.
For instance, a relentless focus on logistics is required. When you build a project in a modular environment, you may be able to do it quicker and with less people, but you also then have to ship it to the site. That can mean spending a lot of money on oversized loads, special routes and transportation permits. Then again, if you deliver smaller components for assembly, you’d better make sure you deliver them at exactly the right time. Delivering early can be just as problematic as late – the components will likely end up getting moved around and damaged, pieces will be stolen and a host of rework becomes necessary. Coordinating all of that effort so that things show up just in time, and everyone knows what they will look like, is the secret to this game.
Contracts are another big issue. If some of your suppliers are losing out because part of the scope of their usual work has moved to modular, they may drag their feet when they’re needed to install the build. So it’s essential to establish commercial frameworks that everyone benefits from when the project is successful.
And finally, communication is key. Anyone working in construction will recognize a culture where people just cope with things. But it’s very difficult to improve your processes if you don’t know what the problems are because people are coping with problems rather than discussing them. So you have to develop strong communications quickly – particularly between the people building the project and those assembling and installing it.
Let’s stop coping and let’s start changing. Modular construction is one good way to go.