Why this could be the future of construction and why we should be very, very afraid.
This may look like your normal Holiday Inn, but Chapman Taylor, a huge multinational architecture firm that started in the UK, describes it in a press release as “the first volumetric modular hotel to be completed in Manchester” (my emphasis):
Chapman Taylor’s Manchester studio, alongside the main contractor, Bowmer & Kirkland, developed the detailed design for the off-site hotel adopting a completely different design process, which was informed by the modular provider’s system. All 220 guestrooms have been constructed off-site from purpose-built steel shipping containers; complete with fully factory finished interior furniture, fixtures and fittings, including carpets, curtains, wallpaper and full-height windows.
But what does “volumetric modular” mean? And what are these "purpose-built shipping containers"? And where do they come from?
Not mentioned on any of their press releases or in almost any of the articles about this project (and I think why they downplay the words "shipping containers" in most articles and press releases) is where these modules are manufactured -- China. They are built, fitted out and delivered by CIMC Modular Building Systems, a subsidiary of China International Marine Containers, and “the largest provider of modular buildings and modular building systems in the world.” And with the politics of jobs, immigration and Brexit these days, there would probably be serious outrage. So nobody mentions the C-word.
Regular readers of TreeHugger will know that I have complained that shipping containers are designed for freight and not for people, and that the interior width is too small for comfortable habitation; even tiny houses are 6 inches wider. But I also believed that designers were missing the point of containers, that it's not about the box. In my post Does Shipping Container Architecture Make Sense? I complained that architects and builders had to "finally figure out what shipping containers actually are, which is not just a box, but part of a global transportation system with a vast infrastructure of ships, trains, trucks and cranes that has driven the cost of shipping down to a fraction of what it used to be."
Some (like MEKA, shown here) have tried building container-sized modules from scratch that piece together to make bigger spaces. It doesn’t work very well. Most modular construction works with larger dimensions, like 12 foot wide, which doesn’t travel very well.
Shipping containers have changed the world.
Yet shipping containers have changed the world, globalized the economy, and made it possible and economical to offshore the manufacturing of just about everything to China with its low labor costs and a very different regulatory environment. Almost everything moves in containers now, thanks to the incredible international transportation system of trucks, cranes and ships designed to handle them. The entire system is based on that standard 20’ or 40’ by 8’ dimension that the standard spreader can pick up. (Listen to Alexis Madrigal's fabulous container podcast to learn about the industry.)
What CIMC Modular has done that I have never seen before (and you can see in this video) is somehow bury the corner castings, set the required 8’ by 40’ apart, in the middle of what I am eyeballing as a 12’ by 48’ module. Shipping containers can be stacked empty up to 16 containers high because the corner castings and corner posts are so strong; everything else is much lighter, and the corrugated sides act as a monocoque shell to hold up the top. I do not know how they transfer the load from those castings to the corner posts that they still need to stack the boxes, but they somehow pull it off.
You can see in the screenshot a bog-standard spreader picking up the box as if it was a standard container, but the box is so much wider and longer. The video is from Construction News, which has a paywall protected article with lots of photos. CIMC Modular notes that “the whole project is a perfect case to show efficiency by using CIMC Modules that [takes] 3 months on module design, 3 months on manufacture, and 2 months on shipping. Thirty-six modules have been installed with 3 days on site.” And they don't ship empty boxes either; they are finished and furnished.
Why is this so important?
Across the US and the UK and, in fact, everywhere, millions of jobs have been lost to offshoring and to automation. Construction is one of the last industries that has been barely affected by these changes, and that still provides lots of “blue collar” jobs to people all over the country. But some construction jobs are so hard that Americans and Britons don’t want to do them anymore, and the industry relies on a lot of foreign workers, which are a diminishing resource as America and Britain close their borders.
Offsite construction has been in existence for some time and has been viewed by many as a niche market related to the ‘prefab’ projects of the post war years. Things are changing fast. Contractors and developers are regularly talking about the merits of modular construction and, increasingly, large multi-national companies are making offsite a key component of their future growth strategies. This trend will grow exponentially over the next decade and beyond.
As noted previously, in all of their documentation and in every article, they never mention China or credit CIMC Modular Building Systems. But I have been to factories in China where they build housing and hotels and I have seen how vast, fast and efficient they are; how they have everything from floor finishes to furniture feeding right in; how the quality can better than you get on most site-built projects.
And the funny thing is, they don’t use this technology much in China. Most residential buildings are built traditionally with concrete, brick and tile, using hundreds of thousands of workers. In China, the construction industry is a vast employment program; the more sophisticated modular and flatpack technology is for export. When the Chinese housing bubble implodes, they will build everybody else’s homes.
Why we should be afraid, very afraid
This might well, as Chapman Taylor notes, make housing more affordable and even better quality, its construction and energy consumption more efficient. But is it a good thing, when we should be building out of sunshine and employing more local people? I doubt it. However, I suspect that it is inevitable. If this takes off, we might well see the kind of disruption in the construction industry that we have seen in everything else, where our buildings become like our iPhones: designed in America but built in China. We might get our housing faster and cheaper, but we might also lose thousands of jobs as the industry is offshored.
Now that they have figured out how to ship a human-sized module in a transportation system designed for freight-sized containers, it really does change everything. I have to agree with Chapman Taylor; this is going to grow exponentially and might just eat the entire construction industry as we know it. Just don't mention the C-word.