The need for decentralised high tech modular


Paul Dunn, executive director at CallisonRTKL explores the need for decentralised high tech modular construction

Put simply, it seems to me there are three forces accelerating design for offsite manufacture and assembly at a pace never seen before.


Remember Sir John Egan’s ‘Rethinking Construction’ report in 1998? This analysed the construction industry in the context of trends in manufacturing and service industries.

And published four years earlier, Sir Michael Latham’s 1994 report entitled ‘Constructing the team’ wherein the foreword, Latham acknowledged some of his recommendations were ‘radical’ but stressed the time for choice had arrived.

Go back further still to Sir Harold Banwell’s report of 1962, even Sir Ernest Simon’s report of 1944 and there is an extraordinary pattern here. Whilst focused on different aspects of the industry, all reports highlighted fragmentation and separation between design and construction. All criticised the industry for entrenched positions, low productivity and underinvestment in technology.


So, lets fast forward to today. How far has the industry come since Egan in 1998? I believe British design, engineering and construction is amongst the best in the world and huge strides have been made. But there is still an awful long way to go. For me, the overarching message from all the research was – learn from the manufacturing industry to drive cohesive, integrated, effective, innovative, technology-based solutions. For this to happen we must adopt a product design mindset, and it has begun. Digital engineering and offsite manufacturing are revolutionising construction. The time for choice has certainly arrived.

Global warming

Building a resource-efficient construction industry continues to be one of our biggest challenges. Other industries – such as manufacturing, healthcare and technology – have evolved over the years. They have embraced technological advances and refined their processes and the materials they work with in ways that would be unrecognisable to a worker in the same industry 50 years ago. The construction industry has not changed nearly so much in comparison. Just recently billionaire Bill Gates said ‘buildings will be the most difficult innovation challenge of the climate crisis.’

The UK construction industry accounts for approximately 55% of the total annual materials consumption and buildings contribute 50% of total emissions of CO2.  BRE reported that buildings are also responsible for 30% of total UK water use and 35% of arising waste. The breakdown of global industrial carbon emissions shows that 55% comes from the manufacture and processing of five stock materials – steel (25%), cement (19%), paper (4%), plastic and aluminium (3%) – all of which are prevalent in construction.

Typically, building one house produces a weight-busting 11 tonnes of waste. That is almost the equivalent of 11 hatchback cars. DEFRA reported that in 2014 the UK generated 202.8 million tons of waste. Construction, demolition and excavation (CDE) was responsible for 59% of that number. No other industry sends as much waste to landfill. The glaring, immediate problem is that we are running out of places to put it.

A global pandemic

This has brought extreme challenges to the world of real estate no doubt. Our government continues to advise that wherever possible, people should work at home. It’s effectively been the advice since March. The impact is irreversible, and work style has changed forever. Clearly, demand for office space will fall overall and in-arguably, high street retail has been declining for many years. Clearly, shopping centres and out-of-town retail parks also begun to suffer. Big-name retailers continue to slim down store estates and seek rent reductions in a desperate attempt to keep their businesses afloat. These trends were evident well before the pandemic and without doubt, the pandemic has and will continue to challenge struggling retailers to the limit. Sadly, and inevitably, more retailers will fail, putting further stresses on property owners.

But conversely, the pandemic also brings impetus and opportunity. I believe the coronavirus will be a driver for de-centralisation, making towns and suburbs more walkable/cycle-able, distributing smaller units of schools, healthcare and workplaces to strengthen local centres and communities.

So, what does it all mean?

Unlike almost all other industries that have innovated, digitised and evolved, ours is yet to fully grasp the opportunities open to us too. As we emerge from this crisis, we must finally change how the industry operates to play our part in the country’s economic recovery.

Pandemic aside, our planet needed environmentally saving regardless. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles – probably our industry’s single biggest challenge. A very brave statement, but we believe we have some ideas responding directly to that, ideas that could reinvent modular construction and drive transformational productivity improvements in the industry – solutions-driven directly in response to the three forces I outline.

As designers, we recognise the immense contribution we can make in the quest for circular economies in the built environment. It could be argued that traditional buildings are wasteful because the entire ethos around creation and product only relates to the immediate and specific end-user. CRTKL endeavours to augment thinking beyond our building’s users – we look much wider, to consider everyone who extracts, builds, uses, and disposes of things in a building’s lifecycle. We try not to look at buildings as ‘finished’ products, rather adaptable, reprogrammable machines that can constantly evolve, ideally based on real-time data. Design is never done.


Paul Dunnmodular construction

Executive director


Twitter: @CallisonRTKL

LinkedIn: CallisonRTKL


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