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Modular Construction: A leap towards efficient, low-carbon construction in Saudi Arabia

Modular construction By Yasir Rabbani, Associate, Structural Engineering – 26 April 2024

Crane lifting a wooden building module to its position in the structure on a construction site


Yasir Rabbani wearing a blue shirt standing outside against a blurred background

Yasir Rabbani

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The construction industry in Saudi Arabia is experiencing a generational boom, providing a unique opportunity to leverage this growth for transformative changes in construction practices. Approximately, $870BN worth of giga projects are taking shape in the country, transforming the Kingdom into a tourism and entertainment hub while creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

The emergence of giga-projects and the expansion of the national development pipeline under Saudi Vision 2030 have highlighted constraints in the local labour market and challenges in the supply chain capacity for materials. This poses risks to project timelines and subsequent delays in clients achieving returns on their investments through leasing, sales, and the operational phase of a development.

One solution to this challenge is the adoption of modular construction approaches, which are paving the way for lower carbon, lower waste, safer, and more efficient project delivery.

Controlling the environment

Modular construction differs from on-site building in that most of the work is completed undercover in a controlled environment. This method introduces an element of speed and efficiency to the process, allowing skilled trade workers to collaborate in real-time to complete modules. The controlled environment also enhances the accuracy and quality of work, reduces the risk of rework to rectify defects, and ensures a level of consistency that is difficult to achieve in on-site scenarios.

Emphasis on design

In the past, modular construction was often associated with simple site cabins or temporary offices styled like shipping containers. However, advancements in digital design and engineering technology have revolutionised it. Architectural visions can now be rendered down to meticulous detail and transferred to computer-aided production equipment.

Modern construction methods enable affordable modular spaces that are swiftly produced in a factory setting and then transported to and assembled on site. A large proportion of the fitout, including façade finishes, window framing, interior finishes, and much of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing fixtures, can be completed off-site.

Construction methods can vary, ranging from the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) or precast concrete to panelisation using composite materials with high insulation values, or steel and timber hybrid cassette systems for the walls and floors of modules or units.

Investing more time in the design stage to achieve the highest quality of specification in the finished result allows every trade to contribute to the federated model that forms the basis of final construction. This detailed planning stage also enables additional analysis to calculate embodied carbon, optimising the design for the best material choices and structural sizes to minimise embodied carbon to the greatest extent possible.

Because modular construction is so precise and the materials and design are closely aligned in the production/construction process, waste of materials is significantly reduced. This results in savings in terms of embodied carbon and material costs.

Linking Design to Operations

The digital model can also be used to understand how the final building will perform in terms of thermal comfort, air quality, energy consumption, and daylighting. Layering this information into the model along with the material specifications allows the client and operator to benefit from a digital operations and maintenance model.

The time invested in the design stage, although greater than in conventional construction, yields dividends as the assembly process begins. The thorough detailing and precise tolerances ensure buildability, almost entirely eliminating variations and cost overruns during construction, saving clients both money and time.

For hospitality projects, where there is a high degree of replication of parts of the building such as individual suites or villas, modular construction offers significant savings in time, cost, and materials. The federated design model can be combined with architectural renders to enable clients to take a virtual tour of the final project design, specifications, and spatial dimensions.

This can be taken a step further with an investment in virtual reality (VR) to provide a full sensory experience of the project ahead of construction. As an alternative to constructing physical showrooms, this approach is worth considering for the reduction in time, materials, and labour involved.

Another advantage for hotel and resort developers, who often create projects ahead of the end operator committing to the asset, is the ability to involve potential operators in the conversation at the final design stage. This allows details to be adjusted to suit the operator’s specific needs and style.

Ultimately, the numbers speak for themselves. Modular approaches take 80% of the construction effort offsite, achieving approximately 98% greater efficiency in terms of overall project cost predictability and time predictability. A modular project generally has 80% fewer workplace accidents compared to conventional on-site approaches, while being 25% faster and producing less than 5% of material waste compared to the more than 15% material waste on average for conventional delivery.

This is a significant shift that will benefit the entire Saudi construction sector – and the scale of the giga-projects can be a catalyst for rapid adoption of transformative modern construction approaches.