Only procurement is holding back modular construction in rail

25th September, 2017

Modular construction is one of those ideas that comes around from time to time, generating enthusiasm within the construction industry and bringing the promise of cheaper, faster and better-managed building projects.

This is currently expressed through the principle of design for manufacture and assembly, or DfMA, which embraces the idea of offsite and prefabricated assembly of not just whole buildings or room modules, but differing scales of pre-fabrication.

Much of this is driven and enabled by modern production methods – robotic construction and full-sized 3D printing, for example.

At Weston Williamson + Partners, we are keen advocates of this principle, and have used state-of-the-art modular techniques for recent student accommodation projects within our residential portfolio.

We are keen to extend modular use and consideration and promote this through our active membership of the DfMA professional practice group across all sectors.

The rail sector has of late been a driving force for modernisation in construction, particularly in respect of building information modelling.

On the rails

Forward-thinking clients such as Crossrail and Transport for London have pushed the use of multi-disciplinary BIM on shared common data environments to the benefit of their projects and the wider construction industry.

Knowledge and expertise in the practical application of BIM is spreading through the supply chain, uniting tech-savvy designers with equally capable subcontractors and fabricators.

The potential exists for this collaborative approach to extend to DfMA, and the benefits are huge, particularly to address the challenges of constrained sites, limited construction periods and tight construction programmes, such as those often found in rail.

The benefits of scale and repeatability can be harvested by designing modular components for railway stations: waiting structures; ticketing facilities; retail units; and cycle stores.

Many of these have the additional benefit of enabling new facilities to be provided without interfering with existing station buildings – a valuable consideration for short-franchise train service providers, as is their use as a significant brand identity.

Where programmes of large scale or line-wide step-free access are considered, modular bridge, lift and stair components could be applicable.

Localised adjustments for slightly wider or narrower platform and track configurations would need to be catered for, but the main sections could be modular.

These could be prewired and finished both internally and externally, needing only craning into position for fixing.

Will it take off?

So will modular construction really take off this time? The principle challenges appear to be related to forms of contract and procurement rather than being technical in nature.

We have the technology and, thanks to now-established BIM collaborative workflows, an effective means to communicate these.

If new forms of contract can be established to allow specialist subcontractors and fabricators earlier input into the design process, then the future is bright.

You could even say the future’s modular.

Neil Sharpe is a partner at Weston Williamson + Partners

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