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Modular construction rides the wave of innovation
23/02/2022 - Blog

The construction sector is turning a crucial page in its existence. Sustainability, decarbonisation, deconstruction, waste reduction, offsetting of CO2 emissions... so many terms and concepts that we had not even heard of just a few years ago. Not to mention the energy requirements, which are setting the bar ever higher in terms of the eco-friendly friendly materials to be used and are radically transforming a sector that was once highly conservative.

Off-site construction is still not used enough in Belgium, but it has a bright future ahead of it as it offers real answers to the current problems posed by traditional construction. Wood Shapers has decided to follow its lead.

With this in mind, it makes sense to look into modular construction, which is nothing other than a response to multiple issues facing today’s workers. Building in a factory rather than on site has a number of advantages. According to Jorgen Bornauw, CEO of Wood Shapers, “Modular construction reduces the complications of access to building sites in dense urban areas. And, what's more, it also enables us to reduce our carbon footprint and waste production by cutting down on transport and production processes. Another important point is that if we build in a factory and then assemble on site, this also means that we can easily dismantle the building when it reaches the end of its life. It’s a perfect illustration of the  ‘cradle-to-cradle’ principle.”

Cradle to Cradle illustratie


Off-site construction can be seen as the missing link between the world of construction and that of industry. This is quite clearly a path that Wood Shapers wishes to explore. The process includes the planning, design, manufacture and transport of prefabricated elements in order to assemble them on site efficiently and to a high standard. The ‘off-site’ concept ranges from single prefabricated elements to 3D volumetric modules, fully finished in the factory. This is the most advanced form of the process, which can be implemented on the basis of a timber, steel or concrete structure.

There are four methods of off-site construction: volumetric/3D/modules, surface/2D, hybrid 3D/2D and sub-assemblies/special techniques/cassettes.

Volumetric or 3D construction

Volumetric or 3D construction involves the manufacture of surface elements (walls, floors, ceilings) that are completely assembled in the workshop and equipped with technical installations such as electricity, ventilation, heating and sanitary facilities. Once assembled, the 3D modules are delivered to the site, where they are simply put into position and ‘plugged’ together. The Jakarta Hotel in Amsterdam is a very good example.

3D module Jakarta Hotel in Amsterdam


Surface method or 2D construction

The surface method consists of producing flat elements in the factory, such as walls, floors or façades, which are then transported to the site to be installed. These elements can include frames, façade and floor coverings, insulation and interior finishing. This is the technique used for timber frame construction, in both renovation and new-build properties.

Volumetric or 3D construction and the 2D/surface method

Hybrid 2D/3D construction

Hybrid 2D/3D construction combines volumetric and surface modules. A good example is the construction of 25 housing units for the housing association SLRB (Société du Logement de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale) in Chaussée Romaine, a street in Laeken, Brussels.

Hybrid 2D/3D construction for the SLRB (Société du Logement de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale) in Chaussée Romaine, a street in Laeken, Brussels


Finally, sub-assemblies simply integrate smaller prefabricated components into an existing structure. This technique does not involve the structural elements of the building. Another example is the fully equipped sanitary pods that are put in place during the construction of the shell.

Sanitary pods 

Working in a factory rather than in the open air has its advantages. Not having to deal with the bad weather that holds up many construction projects is probably the first one that comes to mind. But there are many others. Construction times reduced by 30%, less risk of accidents, better quality and quantity of the product, reduction of waste, better cost control, better working environment and with an easier gender mix: modular construction has a huge number of arguments in favour of it.

Yet modular construction also provides an answer to several current problems facing traditional construction: a long chain of subcontracting and therefore a consequent accumulation of margins, low rate of investment and productivity, an ageing and poorly trained workforce, a worsening labour shortage and difficult working conditions, even though things do seem to be improving in this area. Added to this list are uncontrolled costs, missed deadlines, poor carbon footprint and nuisance to the neighbourhood. A study has shown that only 25% of projects worldwide are delivered within a 10% delay of the total planned timescale. The same study shows that 69% of projects exceed the initial budget by at least 10%. 

And what about the uniqueness of projects? Architects and clients like to have work that they can call their own. Even if this new construction process makes it necessary to change the rules of the game for the various parties involved, it will by no means put the brakes on their creativity, as each project will still be unique. A customised, modular approach allows buildings to be designed in accordance with everyone’s wishes. The challenge will lie in being able to modularise the construction while at the same time customising it. 

Like Building Information Modelling (BIM), modular construction is an integral process that impacts the entire construction chain, from the client to the contractor, and limits the amount of control work and site monitoring carried out. It saves time and money, ensures safety and quality, and is set to put construction on a new track. One that is focused on progress and respect for the environment. And on the construction of tomorrow.

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