The History of Modular Construction: A Construction Method Dating Back to Ancient Rome
Many people believe that modular construction is a newer way of building, but it’s a construction method that dates back to ancient Rome. We’ve all heard the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but it was built in less days than it could have taken because the Romans employed modular construction.
As we know, Rome was a walled city. Along the wall, there were forts much like the ones in the Great Wall of China. The forts featured four gates, a central ceremonial area, baths, and a kitchen. Larger more permanent forts had central headquarters, a chapel for storing sacred weapons, rows of slate-roofed barracks, storage granaries, cookhouses, and latrines with running water large enough to accommodate 20 men.
To build these forts, Roman armies carried them in prefabricated wall sections containing dovetail and cross-halving joints that allowed them to be quickly fitted together on site for instant defense.
Fast forward to the 1600s and there’s a report that refers to a disassembled wood paneled fishing house that was shipped by boat from England to the United States to Massachusetts. The modular building was used to house fishermen that had recently made their way to America and trusted English construction methods.
The Portable Colonial Cottage
However, the first modular building officially on record was built by Henry Manning in the 1800s, as Gilbert Herbert’s Journal Article for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians called The Portable Colonial Cottage recalls. Manning’s son was part of a small group of settlers arriving from Britain to make a new home in West Australia on the banks of the Swan River. Tents and flimsy huts built from local materials were no match for the harsh environment and conditions brought on by the weather. With survival on the line, Manning built a small, well-constructed wooden house in sections back in England and then it was packed for export and assembled with ease on site.
The little wooden house caught on with the other settlers and locals and became instrumental in protecting families from the weather and theft. These little wooden houses could hold up in the harsh environment because they weren’t built in it. The materials they were constructed with were of a higher quality than what could be sourced locally, and the environment they were constructed in was more predictable and fair-weathered than West Australia.
Back across the Pacific Ocean, modular construction was in high demand as the United States expanded westward. During the gold rush of 1849, more than 500 preassembled homes were shipped from factories in New York to California.
The First Modular Hospital
But it wasn’t just housing that modular construction was building back in the 1800s. Entire commercial modular buildings were being built as well. Well-known architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a completely modular hospital at the height of the Crimean War in 1855 known as the Renkioi Hospital. It was designed, constructed, and shipped within five months and provided a facility for timely medical care during the conflict.
The Sears Modern Home Program
Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. began selling prefabricated houses through its Sears Modern Home Program, geared towards the middle class and WWI veterans. Customers could order one of the 400 house plans from their catalog and receive it in easy-to-construct sections. All that was needed was land to place it on and labor to put it there. Once purchased by catalog, the building materials were shipped by train and ready to move into in as little as 90 days.
The Sears Modern Home Program was popular, and it helped build American neighborhoods as we know them today.
The Evolution Continues: Modern Modular Construction
While modular construction’s roots lie in Rome and its early days were largely centered around residential structures, modular construction is widely used commercially today for a smarter, faster, greener approach to construction.
- Greener: The factory-controlled process generates less waste, creates fewer site disturbances and allows for tighter construction.
- Faster: Construction of modular buildings occurs simultaneously with site work, allowing projects to be completed in half the time of traditional construction.
- Smarter: Modular buildings are built with the same materials and to the same building codes and architectural specifications as traditional construction. Once assembled, they are virtually indistinguishable from their site-built counterparts.
With modular construction, site development and foundation work happen simultaneously with the construction of the building at the factory making it 30%-50% faster than traditional stick-built construction.
But that’s just the start of a very long list of advantages that have brought the construction industry back to modular construction time and time again throughout history.
We saw the construction industry and the government heavily relying on advantages of modular construction throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic. It was instrumental in helping the world adapt to the “new normal.”
But now, with a looming climate crisis and yesterday’s need for immediate affordable housing and everyday structures that support our society, the question we must ask in construction is, “How will we create a better normal?”
The answer is as it’s always been throughout history – modular construction.
Interested in stepping into the future and going modular for your next project? Contact our team and request a quote today.