A Modular Future

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Type modular design in Google Images and you see a colorful patchwork of what the future might look like.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, modular design is generally a sign of maturation in a respective craft. It is the indication that a designer has mastered the basic principles of functionality in a design and is moving on to universalize the design, making iterations of the design more adaptable, versatile, and efficient.

What do I mean by all of this? Let me give you an example.

The evolution of the building industry actually serves as a convenient example. Not long ago, the building industry worked mainly with rigid, fixed buildings, each building taking on a specific function. A different building had to be built according to each unique function. If the building’s function changed, they had to demolish sections or even the whole building and dispose of the waste. Then they had to start a new section or building to accommodate new functions.

As designers and builders mastered their methods, they started thinking about new, more efficient ways to build. Modularity of design is born. Larger units of construction (such as a building) break down and atomize into individual, self-contained units (such as modular wall panels and frames). These units can then be arranged into larger structures, or buildings, to be fitted with doors, windows, HVAC units, faucets, and whatever other items need to be installed to carry out a specific function. Then, all of these individual units can be broken down again to form something else.

We now see a whole new level of efficiency, adaptability, and versatility in our buildings, benefitting our businesses and the environment simultaneously! This model can be extended to all other aspects of design. Granted, some designs are unique and non-transferrable. We aren’t quite at the point where we can break down a cell phone and rearrange it into a lawn-chair. But will we ever be at that point? Or is it just absurd? I don’t know.

Nevertheless, more and more designs are becoming more modular and versatile. This is what the future will look like.

Interestingly, modular designs are also going hand in hand with nature-imitating designs. Humanity’s peaking interest in the environment is really beginning to show at a time when designs are undergoing modularization.

This is completely appropriate, since modular design is environmentally friendly and cuts down on waste. We can now cut down on multiple design iterations and redundancy by providing universal designs that can be configured to meet a variety of uses. In the near future, you won’t have to go to lengths to build your dream kitchen, only to rip it out and redo it when you want to upgrade it. You’ll be able to install and remove various kitchen modules to carry out your changing needs.

This saves dramatically on unnecessary waste. Our increasing investment in sustainable designs is consistent with the physical appearance with these designs. Designs are appearing more and more organic and are further taking on the appearance of their surroundings. All of these emerging elements in design indicate our understanding that we are a part of our environment and are not separate from it. Further, we wish to sustain that environment and protect. That’s what the future is going to look like.

On Green, Sustainable Buildings

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So I talked a bit about green buildings in the last post, how our modular buildings are made from recyclable materials and are reusable for a variety of applications.

But what does it mean to be a green building? Besides being recyclable and reusable? And what is all this talk about sustainability that has been going on? I seek to address those issues in this post.

A green building is not only made of recyclable materials, which is always a great feature, but is designed and built with many other aspects of environmental interaction in mind. Everything from water use, energy use, ventilation, to insulation and heating/cooling efficiency is considered when building a green building.

A modular building is made from recyclable materials and is reusable, yes, but there is more to the green benefits of modular construction. Modular walls have a higher insulating capability than drywall, so less energy will be used to heat and cool the building. Used with water-saving faucets and toilets, a modular building goes a long way in ensuring the building is environmentally friendly.

But where do we get the motivation to build green buildings in the first place? They’re a nice idea sure, but are they really necessary? Hopefully we want to answer, “Well of course they are!” But why? This is where the concept of sustainability comes in.

Sustainability pertains to the belief that we have limited resources to work with, but we didn’t always believe this.

Plants and trees grow, animals reproduce, rain replenishes our water supplies…all of these observable phenomena gave earlier generations the illusion that we have infinite resources to work with. Our planet’s natural life cycles replenish all of the resources we need. Nothing is created or destroyed…waste only breaks down to be recycled and used again, etc.

The problem is that this way of thinking is no longer relevant to what reality tells us. What we have learned with modern sciences and technology is that we are quickly depleting our resources.

Have you heard of the term “renewable?” Renewable resources are resources that replenish, so yes, we can draw from stores of renewable resources. The only problem is that these renewable resources require certain environmental conditions to replenish themselves. What we have been doing is using resources to the point of them no longer being renewable at their source. If you put enough of a strain on a self-replenishing system, that system will no longer have the ability to replenish itself. To cite an extreme example, you can cut your finger and your skin will heal and regenerate. Your body has that capacity. But if your hand or even your finger comes off, your body doesn’t have the capabilities of regenerating that hand or finger. That’s just not how it works. The same is the case with certain resources. If you draw water from a reservoir to the point of the reservoir drying up, that reservoir may lose the ability to retain water in the future.

Sustainability is a concept applied to our understanding of resources. When we say we want to develop a sustainable resource or design, then we want that resource or design to be fit for human use, but also to exist without damaging our ecosystem. Having a sustainable resource means we are using that resource moderately, but also allowing the resource to replenish, putting less of a strain on the ecosystem. By the same token, if we are working with a sustainable design, then that design, whether it is a car or building or appliance will be able to exist in our environment without putting a strain on resources.

Sustainable design in buildings pertains to a philosophy of design that incorporates considerations of the relation between the economic, ecological, and social spheres and the need for sustainable resources for consumption.

What this all means is this: we have come to understand that humans as a species exist within a delicate ecological system, or the environment. Our concept of the environment is no longer that of a simple background full of resources that we can fool around in all day. We have come to understand the environment as a complicated process that we are inexorably a part of. Everything we do affects the environment, which in turn can affect our society back, which can cause all sorts of economical changes as well. It is in this way that society, the ecosystem, and the economy are all connected. If we damage one portion of that relationship, the damage will eventually transfer to the other portions. It is this current understanding of our world that leads us to put so much weight on sustainable design.

Waste ends up in landfills and becomes unusable matter. Since sustainable building designs use recycled materials and are reusable, we don’t have to dig into the actual environment and extract raw materials. The longer we can put to use limited resources that we absolutely need, the longer our environment has time to recharge and replenish its resources to be used for future generations. Modular buildings are green by this very standard. They use recycled materials and the modular structures are reusable themselves, so the original raw materials get put to use in longer lifecycles, giving our renewable resources more time to recharge.

So to conclude, we exist as part of a delicate interrelation of human societies and ecosystems. If something harmful happens to an ecosystem, this in turn will damage human society and vice versa. It is in our best interest to build structures that use up as little of the environment’s resources as possible, so that in the future we can continue to have resources to work with.

Modular Construction and the Environment

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It’s interesting how the explosion in technological advances in the modular building industry coincided with the rising global awareness of the green movement. Coincidence? Act of fate? Or maybe it couldn’t have been otherwise…

Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is that we are now painfully aware of the human impact on the ecosystem and the environment in general. Climate changes due to global warming, energy shortages, depleting fresh water stores, collapsing ecosystems, and other environmental problems have been made fully present in today’s public awareness. In the last 30 years, the picture painted by these problems was pretty bleak. Basically, corporations were recklessly destroying the environment in pursuit of profit, and the general character of mankind was seen to be squandering natural resources daily, natural resources that we took for granted but that wouldn’t be around for much longer. Soon the earth would be an inhospitable wasteland and we would be obliterated.

However, that’s not the picture we see today. The green movement has reached a critical stage in which businesses and concerned individuals have embraced environmentalism and the pursuit of green technology. Whereas in the past, going green was seen as expensive and impractical and was resisted, today going green is seen as actually profitable and cost-saving and a necessary pursuit for the good of our future generations. We are beginning to see the development of a bright, optimistic view of our environment and the future. Population growth is stabilizing and the existing population is more aware of human effect on the environment than ever.

Instead of just advancing for the sake of advancing, modern technology is advancing carefully, taking care not to “tread all over the grass.” Technology is now green-oriented, focusing on energy conservation, efficiency, and waste elimination.  Modern technological advances are not only focusing on human benefit, as they were before, but balancing that with environmental benefit and doing a great job of managing the two while still bounding forward, in my opinion. That’s brilliance right there.

Modern modular construction is a big part of the green technology movement, seeing as how construction waste makes up more than 30% of landfill waste. With the reusability and recyclability of modular systems, construction waste could be virtually eliminated if modular construction advances as the standard method of construction. Modular systems are made from completely recyclable materials, which helps. But one of the greenest aspects of modular buildings is their reusability. If you build a modular building intended to carry out a certain function out of universal, modular parts, you can break those parts down and rearrange the parts to build another building that can carry out a completely different function.

This is a profound advantage that carries benefits that are two-fold. Not only are you cutting down on waste from having to destroy a building and dispose of the debris, but you are saving on the energy and resources that it takes to construct a whole other building. This is an elegant solution to construction waste if I don’t say so myself, and a sign of the beginnings of a new, bright age of clean, green technology.

Building an Image for Modular Construction

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One of the major tasks of our marketing department and probably other modular companies’ marketing departments is creating a favorable image to be associated with the word “modular”.

Two decades ago, maybe more, the word “modular” was associated with prefabricated homes, mobile homes, and portable trailer buildings. The word began to acquire negative connotations. When people thought of modular, they thought of the cheap, quickly thrown together buildings that could be traced to the beginnings of modular construction after WW2. You walk through a building like that and you feel like you are stepping through a cardboard box. It’s no wonder the term began to gather negative connotations.

However, in the past 20 years, modular construction has seen incredible advances in technology and method, where today’s modular building is a completely different species of building altogether.

Modular construction is quickly becoming the new definitive “construction”, and represents an exciting new way of thinking about construction itself. The trouble is, the word still carries those old negative connotations and a lot of people don’t realize what is going on in the industry. This is a problem, considering how energy efficient, waste efficient, flexible, and intuitive modular construction has become. 

People see the modular products that Allied Modular puts out and some of them are genuinely surprised. They marvel at how nice the buildings are and how solid they look and feel.

Realizing the true image and connotations to be associated with today’s meaning of the word “modular” on a mass scale would really usher in the modular method as the new definitive type of construction, and I think that is slowly happening to some extent.

It makes me think of today’s 3D technology in digital entertainment, oddly enough.

But I suppose you can draw the analogy without too much difficulty. 3D technology has been around for a while; I believe they first started showing 3D movies in the 1950’s, and then the technology grew more popular in the 80’s and 90’s, but it was still only limited to a smaller niche then. Finally, the technology caught up with the idea and we see releases such as Avatar that are hugely popular and then the floodgates open and now everything is becoming 3D. We will see more advanced forms of the technology and 3D will become the standard delivery of digital media.

I see a lot similarities with that and modular construction.

An idea will often begin as a gimmick and as technology catches up and the gimmick becomes more and more useful and wholesale, the gimmick can solidify into something useful, and eventually a standard if the idea is powerful and universal enough.

I think modular construction is one of those ideas, an idea that will become a standard.

So we come back to the question of how we deliver the image of modular construction as the new standard of construction into the global consciousness.

Do we do it simply by demonstration? I think that is already underway at this point. Can we help to move it along with a cartoon character? A funny commercial? An icon? I don’t know at this point.

Time will tell, as it always does.