Lack of standardization hinders modular construction growth

Modular buildings are coming to the forefront as the US pays more attention to reducing waste and embodied carbon in building construction. Modular construction processes build a project off-site under controlled plant conditions and then transport the components to the site for assembly and construction. Owners who are particularly concerned about reducing waste and meeting ambitious sustainability targets turn to modular construction since it is less wasteful and has a lower impact on greenhouse emissions, even after factoring in transportation costs. Despite the advantages, experts say that the lack of national regulatory standards in two areas is holding back growth that allows for the reuse of designs.

The first challenge is standardizing highway transportation regulations that differ from state-to-state. Trucks transport modular units from the production facility to the construction site, and allowable transport sizes are different in each state. Differing transportation regulations means that owners and suppliers have to be cognizant of allowable module sizes and the associated transport costs; this hinders competition across state lines and introduces market inefficiencies.

The second challenge is that states tailor each of their buildings codes to address the particular environment under their jurisdictions. With each state using different versions of applicable codes, manufacturers have to adapt their solutions for each jurisdiction. Thirty-nine states have programs that regulate offsite construction and the remaining states don’t have any programs, leaving it up to local jurisdictions to decide how to apply existing codes intended for traditional construction methods to offsite construction.

The International Code Council (ICC) and Modular Building Institute (MBI) have released two standards to promote consistency in the offsite construction regulatory process. Standard 1200 covers the design, fabrication, and manufacturing portion while Standard 1205 covers inspection and regulatory compliance for offsite projects. The ICC is targeting 2027 as the date to embed these standards in the International Building Code (IBC). If approved, it would be easier for states to embed modular construction standards in their codes as they update their building regulations with the latest version of the IBC.

Design firms need to educate themselves on modular construction developments in your particular area so that clients can have a clear sense of this construction alternative for their particular projects in terms of cost and time savings, as well as improved sustainability impacts that are increasingly important to owners.

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