What comes first, the LEGO bricks or the LEGO master?
What if the LEGO Masters had to invent all of the bricks that they were going to build with? Follow me on this logic.
If the bricks had to be invented by the contestants:
Rules would be needed to confine what could realistically be created.
Builds could be much more abstract and crazy looking.
“Bricks” wouldn’t necessarily be used as a primary building block.
The cost of creation would be higher because of the custom pieces.
There would be other consequences, but I think that we can all agree that the game would change in a big way.
The modular construction movement is trying to figure out this very same issue. What comes first, is it the modules or the modular design?
Construction already uses modular or unitized building materials as its basis for the design. Whether you are dealing with real brick, lumber, plywood, or piping, we use predictable sizes and shapes that complement each other and fit together well.
When we say modular design, what we really mean is “more assembled.”
How much we put together is determined by the economy, logistics, and availability. All of these need to be considered by whoever had the ideas, and decided to assemble more off-site. If the “LEGO bricks” are designed and available, the designer only has to think about how those “bricks,” or in a real sense, “modules, plug into the design. Better yet, the designer might even base their approach around the elements, to begin with, and connect other less assembled materials into the modules.
Innovative designers incur risk by going modular.
Presently there aren’t a lot of companies that have their offering of a prefabricated bathroom or wall or even pipe skid so ready to grab off of a database shelf that a designer knows what they have to build with. They are like the Lego master without any bricks when they are asked to modularize a job. They not only invent the module, but they also invent the means and methods of construction. They are forced to grapple with shipping, pricing, and procurement because they are responsible if they specify something that misses on one of these criteria.
The risks cast a shadow that discourages modular construction. Because of the unknowns, the natural reaction of owners and designers alike is a “not on my project” attitude. The risk of innovation doesn’t appear to be worthy of the reward.
Modular construction and vertical integration go hand in hand. As a result of not being able to find “off of the shelf” modular solutions, companies are taking it upon themselves to create their own modular means of construction. These companies capitalize on the economy of scale to make it happen. In other words, large projects are getting modularized, and smaller projects aren’t. It is my belief that building this way has benefits to offer all shapes and sizes of construction projects.
Smaller projects and contractors need others to create a solution for them. They don’t have the deep pockets and economies of scale to work with during pre-construction planning to swallow the process whole. Simultaneously, they are small, lean, and mean firms that can take care of projects that don’t offer the scale of a large multi-family facility or a series of hotels. So the industry needs these smaller contractors, and the projects could benefit from modular means of construction.
So what do we do?
For companies that build modules, we need you to step up and let us know that you're out there. Owners, contractors, and designers go find these companies, use them, and pay for the economy they are bringing you. If modular construction is going to be used on the average project, suppliers need business to grow and publish their offerings.
In summary, how do we encourage more companies to go into modular building components? The answer is that we make it profitable for them and start specifying and purchasing their products. So to answer my first question, I believe that all the LEGO masters need the bricks. Once we establish basic modules, they will be used and interlocked with designs as a natural byproduct of their availability.
by Eddie Campbell
We explored this topic in depth in our podcast episode "Like Lego."