Leveraging Standards to Seize the Modular Construction Opportunity
Modular buildings are not a new concept. Historically, preassembled modules provided a quick and affordable solution for fast-growing housing demands, helped expand the capacity of health care and educational facilities in communities, and temporarily housed industry workers close to project sites. Recent technological innovations have advanced modular construction from single-family or relocatable housing to multi-storey residential buildings.
With the current housing crisis in Canada, modular construction can be part of the solution. However, this building method is not well understood by owners, builders, and regulators. As a result, modular construction is not used to its full potential. Standards can help overcome this challenge and increase confidence in modular construction as an effective, efficient, and resilient building process.
Benefits of modular construction for industry and communities
Modular buildings are carefully designed for manufacturing in a factory. This allows architects and engineers to specify both materials and processes that can increase building quality, reduce material waste, optimize labour, and improve productivity.
With modules manufactured in the controlled environment of a factory, weather conditions become less of an issue – something Canadians specifically can appreciate. The lower probability of construction safety incidents in a controlled environment, compared to traditional on-site construction, is also an important factor for the industry with higher than average incident rates¹. The positive environmental impacts of modular construction, resulting from reduced transportation needs and waste production, make the method even more attractive.
In addition, any community that experienced disruptions to traffic, businesses, and the overall quality of life of its residents due to a prolonged construction project would welcome shorter and cleaner on-site construction.
Why is Canada lagging in modular construction?
Many countries around the world, including the US, Australia, Singapore, and the UK, have embraced modular construction as a way to keep up with the projected demand for new housing. In Canada, however, only 4% of all 2018 projects involved modular buildings.
A complicated and slow approval process for modular projects may be one of the reasons. CSA Group’s research report, High-Rise Modular Construction – A Review of the Regulatory Landscape and Considerations for Growth, suggests that many industry professionals are not familiar with the modular construction method and the certification process. At the same time, manufacturers of the building modules, engineers, and developers may not be as familiar with the roles and responsibilities of regulators in different jurisdictions. These challenges can pose additional hurdles and lead to redundancies in both in-factory and on-site inspections.
Inconsistent regulatory landscape slows approval process
Slow uptake of modular construction can be attributed, in part, to inconsistent referencing of modular standards in regulations across Canada.
Same as other methods, modular construction must adhere to the requirements of building codes. While many Canadian provinces adopt the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) in its entirety, some introduce their own NBC-based codes with significant additions or deletions, or create bylaws applicable in their regions. With the modular factory and the actual building site often located in different jurisdictions, having two sets of regulations can add complexity to the situation.
The delay in the permitting process has been widely cited by stakeholders as one of the largest barriers to the success of modular construction in Canada. In fact, in some cases, stakeholders with experience in both conventional and modular construction have reported that modular construction permits can take up to six times longer than conventional build permits. This is, in part, attributable to a lack of guidance and understanding of modular building processes.
Helping ensure modular buildings meet requirements of building codes
One of the standards that can help increase the confidence of authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) in modular construction is CSA A277-16 (R2021), Procedure for certification of prefabricated buildings, modules, and panels. Using this standard, accredited third-party inspection agencies (TPIA) review drawings, plans, and documentation and conduct in-factory inspections during different phases of construction. These inspections include reviewing structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and gas components of the module to ensure that all applicable codes and standards are met. In-factory inspections can eliminate the need for further inspections of the modules when they arrive at the final building location.
CSA A277 is referenced in the NBC in an informal capacity, and its formal adoption into regulations is at the discretion of AHJs. In the provinces and territories that reference CSA A277 in their regulations, the approval process for a modular product certified in accordance with CSA A277 can be fairly smooth.
Supporting a better understanding of modular projects and approval processes
CSA Group research identified gaps in understanding modular construction as one of the barriers to the broader adoption of the method. The standard CSA Z250:21, Process for delivery of volumetric modular buildings, aims to address this challenge.
CSA Z250 describes the main differences between traditional and modular construction,and aims to support manufacturers, engineers, industry professionals, developers and AHJs by providing guidance on the modular construction method.
By mapping a general approval process and roles and responsibilities of different parties throughout the modular project, the standard also helps builders understand the requirements of AHJs, including what details the drawings and documentation of a modular construction project must include.
CSA Z250 can help reduce redundancies by providing a consistent approach to approving modular construction projects. That can result in smoother and faster inspections, approvals, and project completion.
More guidance for regulators on modular project approvals
To help further streamline the process of modular project approvals, CSA Group published a new guideline, CSA Z252:23, Volumetric modular construction – Guide to compliance and approval processes.
CSA Z252 provides AHJs and TPIAs with guidance for approving permanent modular buildings of any size and occupancy type. It outlines what can be expected at each stage of the building permit review, off-site and on-site inspections, and approvals, as well as the roles and responsibilities of TPIAs within the modular construction process. This can facilitate faster modular project completion and contribute to the broader adoption of modular construction.
Continuous improvements to benefit Canadians
Modular construction is poised as one of Canada’s premier answers to ever-growing issues in producing economic and environmentally smart buildings.
CSA Group’s standards for modular construction can play a critical role in the success of the industry. They can help establish a transparent, and predictable process for developing safe and healthy built environments. Standards can also lead to more cost-effective processes and better quality products, improving the adoption of modular construction as a method that can meet or exceed contemporary construction practices and provide a higher quality of life for Canadians. A future standard CSA Z251 is an example of CSA Group’s ongoing efforts to support these goals. Building on the internationally recognized principles in design of modular buildings, the standard will address a range of design aspects, including structural design, design for transportation, durability, fire protection, and circularity of construction.
¹ National Work Injury, Disease, and Fatality Statistics; The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, https://awcbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/National-Work-Injury-Disease-and-Fatality-Statistics-2017-2019.pdf
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