Modular Architecture is an idea where a simple conceivable component is built up or multiplied to form a larger structure. It could be parts like precast walls and a roof to form a home, a set of prefabricated metal panels to form partitions or glazing, etc. This method relies on mathematics and logistics to create the structure desired (TAALMAN and HUNSICKER, 2002). There have been many for and against arguments for this kind of architecture. However, it is a growing sector widely used for high-rise housing and office structures and could very possibly be the future of the built environment.

While modular architecture has some challenges and ideological issues, there are a few things one could do to combat it. 

1.Simplicity in Building and Complex calculations in Planning; 10-storey apartment block in Changsha, China

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Construction of a 10-story apartment block, China_©Dezeen

The key element that makes modular architecture popular is its reduced need for skilled labour during construction. It is drawn from the fact that most of the calculations and prerequisites for construction are done before the structure is being built. The assembly on site almost requires no building skill except for the knowledge of the assembly itself. There are two advantages to complex pre-planned calculations for construction; which are, saving the time taken to construct and achieving cost efficiency due to reduced cost of labour.

One such example is the 10-storey apartment block constructed in Changsha, China within 28 hours. It is the world’s fastest constructed project of that scale. They used factory-made stainless steel container units of 40 feet by 80 feet measurement (Ravenscroft, 2021).

2. Flexibility for the Cause: Modular Paper Partition System for Ukrainian Refugees

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PPS modules in Paris_©Dezeen

Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize winner, created a modular Paper Partition system made of paper or cardboard tubes. These tubes form partition frames which are then closed with a cloth to create cubicles for the refugees. It was to provide them with privacy, ‘a basic right’ in Shigeru Ban’s words(Crook, 2022).

The hallmark of this design is that it is a simple and flexible solution that facilitates its replication anywhere in the world, cost efficiency, and temporary nature. Flexibility in both design and execution gives it an edge in being an immediate solution for a human catastrophe. 

The first of its kind was installed in Warclaw and Chelm in Poland in vacant supermarkets. The cubicles varied from 2 by 2 to 2.3 by 2.3 meters in size on the plan(Crook, 2022).

3. Count your energy consumption: Cosmic ADU’s Unit

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Cosmic ADU assembling on site_©Dezeen
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Cosmic ADU assembling on site_©Dezeen

One of the appeals of modular architecture is the execution of building the structure by calculating the exact number of units to assemble and minimising material waste. It can also be presented as an environmentally friendly solution. However, it is essential to note that maintenance and building services also form a part of the energy and material used for the building to function therefore adding up to the carbon consumption of the building.

Cosmic, a start-up in San Fransico has come up with a solution for such an issue. It has introduced a hybrid modular building system where the parts are factory-made and are packed in small-size flatbed components that are transported to the site and assembled there. The units come with pre-assembled mechanical and engineering plumbing that is tied to the city’s drainage and plumbing lines. In contrast, the roof comes with a solar array to generate its electricity with a sizable battery pack for thermal energy storage (McKnight, 2022).

While the solutions are mostly engineering and technology-based, this case could be an example for us architects to come up with practical and passive design techniques to reduce thermal and insulation load on the building so that the house can function with reduced energy needs. One such example could be the use of natural insulation materials packed into the roofing units or using stilt designs to avoid repair due to moisture infiltration into the built fabric.

4. Design the space for the mind: Triangular Migrant Shelter, Paris

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Triangular Migrant Shelter, Paris_©Dezeen
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Triangular Migrant Shelter, Paris_©Dezeen

This modular structure in Paris designed by the collaboration of Atelier Craft and ICI is one of the best and most viable examples of modular architecture. One of the major issues that come to mind when thinking of modular architecture is its monotonous nature due to its repetitive and plain design.

However, this design surpasses it in every way possible using architectural principles like bioclimatic passive design, materials that reflect the context, and accentuated natural lighting. Materials used were wooden frames, plywood panels, metal corrugated cladding and transparent plastic sheets. The single frame of the triangular structure can span out however desired and is also structurally and economically advantageous(Astbury, 2022).

The structure was aimed at creating a welcoming space that provides psychological support (Astbury, 2022) and the ambience of the structure achieves it. Designing for the mind of the inhabitant is as important as the design itself.

5. Build with character: Douguang system of the traditional Chinese Architecture

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Traditional Douguang Brackets in the Forbidden city_©archdaily
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Contemporary usage of Douguang in the Cina Pavilion in the 2020 expo_©archdaily

Following the previous tip, any architectural design needs to show or exhibit a particular character. This character could be a representative of the context, a demographic or its culture. It makes the structure all the more unique and significant adding a lasting value while also giving the users a sense of belonging.

One such example is the contemporary use of the Chinese Douguang brackets system. It is a traditional modular technology where the pitched roof and the columns are connected by interlocked wooden brackets. This is used today by Chinese architects by repeating brackets to support themselves and hold the structure together (Miao, 2020).

6. Electable Possibilities designed to suit: Phäbb Modu Modular Housing

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An option for modular housing unit by Morris+Company_©archdaily

Morris + Company has launched a series of modular housing types to suit different needs and necessities. These options are the DADU house, Suburban House, Beach House and Stacked house. They are designed and pre-planned to suit different needs and necessities. The key to their design is the possibility of customising it to different contexts to suit not only the aesthetics but also the climatic conditions. These customisations range from using different replaceable materials like wood, brick, metal panels etc to using different models of functional spaces like bedrooms, living rooms and bathrooms to expand the space according to people’s needs (Baldwin, 2020).

It is important to remember while designing modular homes, to leave as much room to customise as possible. Homes are one of the most personal spaces one could design and individual taste and preferences play a vital role in it. It is therefore essential to design with open choices.

7. Intention to be a sensitive solution: Luxembourg Pavilion

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An option for modular housing unit by SNDCA_©archdaily

There is a reason that modular architecture is seen as a solution for many issues and as the future of housing. At present, there are huge crises like overcrowding, population growth, lack of space and so on. The intent of designing modular homes needs to be sensitive to these issues. Modular architecture can be used as a tool to combat such problems.

For instance, the 2021 Venice Biennale explores the options for modular housing to solve the housing crisis in Luxembourg where real estate has seen a huge hike in pricing. The exhibit on modular housing intends to question the set norms of the standard of living, lifestyle, governance and urban design. The experiment creates modules with open plans to accommodate different types of families and living conditions. The proposal is set in vacant and undeveloped lands to accommodate temporary housing modules. Studio SNDCA created the modular home in collaboration with architects, a photographer, a textile designer, a researcher and a structural engineer(Cutieru, 2021).

8. Massing makes or breaks: Modular Housing options by Danish Architects

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Modular Housing that experiments with natural light through massing_©archdaily

Experimenting with modules before building it is the best way to determine the most viable massing option. Massing models can help gain more information about how the exterior and interior interact and how the lighting behaves in the interior spaces. For instance, Danish architects experiment by creating one module, say a 45-meter square module ‘composed to be independent on its own, but with the possibilities of creating countless configurations when joined by others’(Harrouk, 2019). 

9. Affordability: Urban Splash’s Manifesto for the future of housing

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Community Housing ‘Port Loop development’ by Urban Splash_©Dezeen

While affordability might seem like an afterthought, it is a vital factor when considering housing. Most of the time, the housing needs are sought out and stipulated for communities by the government and urban planners. Surely, any such project would be cost-effective. While cost is determined by real estate, building services and so on, it also depends partly on the need for labour, cost of materials, transportation of materials, cost of machinery etc.

These are essentially dealt with in the Port Loop development, an affordable housing community designed by Urban Splash. They prioritise the well-being of the inhabitants making their design imperative that there are enough open spaces and that the site is not isolated. Urban Splash also is constructing various other projects such as New Islington in Manchester and Northstowe in Cambridgeshire (staff, 2020).

10. Design to optimum standards: Urban Nest for Mini Living

Penda’s Mini Living for Shanghai’s Mini Life Expo_©archdaily

Architectural firm Peda, in China, has created a prototype of 3 by 3 by 3 meters of a single module that could fit a practical functional space like living, dining or bedroom. Each module is then added and fitted with each other to form a house with minimum standards to carry out different functions (舒岳康, 2017).

While designing modular houses it is easy to skip the part of adhering to minimum requirements for living spaces. It is indispensable to allow minimum space for functions to be carried out. It would be easier to design if each module was representative of minimum standards to ensure efficient and minimalist design.

As seen from the above examples, it is evident that there are a lot of options to explore yet when it comes to a modular home. While many other questions are unanswered, there is a huge scope to answer them.

References:

  1. Astbury, J., 2022. Atelier Craft and ICI! complete triangular migrant shelter in Paris. Dezeen.
  2. Baldwin, E., 2020. Morris+Company Launches Phäbb MODU Modular Housing. ArchDaily.
  3. Crook, L., 2022. Shigeru Ban builds modular partitions to offer privacy to Ukrainians in emergency shelters. Dezeen.
  4. Cutieru, A., 2021. Luxembourg Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Biennale Explores Alternative Modes of Living Amid the Housing Crisis. ArchDaily.
  5. Harrouk, C., 2019. Modular Housing Concepts by Danish Architects. ArchDaily.
  6. McKnight, J., 2022. Cosmic ADU is a “self-powered home” that uses no fossil fuels. Dezeen.
  7. Miao, S., 2020. From Ancient to Modern: Modular Construction in Chinese Timber Architecture. ArchDaily.
  8. Ravenscroft, T., 2021. Ten-storey stainless-steel apartment block built in 28 hours. Dezeen.
  9. staff, D., 2020. House by Urban Splash creates a manifesto for the future of housebuilding. Dezeen.
  10. TAALMAN, L., HUNSICKER, E., 2002. Simplicity is not Simple: Tessellations and Modular Architecture. Math Horizons 10, 5–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/25678378
  11. 舒岳康, 2017. Penda Creates “Urban Nest” for MINI LIVING’s Shanghai Mini Life Exposition. ArchDaily.
Author

Bhairav is an aspiring conservation architect who loves to write about the social aspects of architecture, urbanism, and heritage. She earned a B.Arch in 2018 from Anna University in Chennai and an MSc in Architectural Conservation in 2020 from the University of Strathclyde in the UK.

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