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The history of modular construction

Alice-India Garwood
by Alice-India Garwood on October 11, 2018

Whilst modular construction is the word on everybody’s lips right now, it’s actually nothing new. The concept is remarkably more than 100 years old. It’s popularity has never really dwindled, due in no short part to the efficiency of the method. As a construction method it is low waste, low cost and time efficient - perfection!

Although prefab and modular are often used interchangeably there are technical differences. So whilst on the surface they seem the same, prefab is when a portion of construction takes place elsewhere in a factory setting. Whereas modular construction takes place entirely in the factory with the pieces being transported and assembled on site.

Whilst some will argue the case that modular construction started with the Sears catalogue in the early part of the 1900s, it actually dates back to the 1830s.

Henry Manning, a British carpenter, began the trend by building the components for houses in Britain and having them shipped to Australia. The first official recognition of this being in an issue of the South Australian Record in 1837.

Modular Construction, Bobtrade, Efficiency, Creativity, Building Supplies, Construction Materials

[Photo Credit: Ghubar]

"Henry Manning, a British carpenter, built the components for houses before having them shipped to Australia."

So, Manning’s British exports were the first officially recorded modular constructed houses. 

The Sears Roebuck Company modular houses were the first to be popular in the US. 

The houses were advertised as essentially being a build your own home kit. There were over 40 styles and they ranged in price from $700 - $14000. Between 1908 - 1940 over 75,000 kits were sold. They were delivered by rail with everything you would need to construct them.

Hundreds of the original modular houses sold and built in the 1900s still stand in cities across the USA.

Did you know that modular construction also had a role in the military? Due to the speedy assembly times and low cost, modular construction was used as an efficient way of constructing pop up hospitals and cafeterias. It was first used during the Crimean War.

"Military application of modular construction were first used during the Crimean War."

Inspired by the writings of Florence Nightingale, the infamous Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed modular hospitals and had them shipped to the Crimea. It is believed having a proper, purpose built hospital reduced the rate of death from 42% - 3.5%. Absolutely incredible!

Not only this but during WW2, brits who had lost their homes during the bombings were housed in “prefabs”.

Modular Construction, Bobtrade, Efficiency, Creativity, Building Supplies, Construction Materials[Photo Credit:]

"It is believed having a purpose built modular hospital assisted in reducing death rates from 42% - 3.5%"

1950s America was where modular construction became more standardised. Being used to build schools and hospitals as well as a branch of McDonalds - which was built and opened in a little over 12 hours - Remarkable!

Speedy, green and cost effective. This efficient innovation changed the face of construction and continues to be used across the world. Did you know that the World Trade Centre buildings in New York had prefabricated facades? It’s one of the innovations that has made the speedy construction of skyscrapers possible.

Modular Construction, Bobtrade, Efficiency, Creativity, Building Supplies, Construction Materials[Photo Credit: AV Department, Inc.]

"The World Trade Centre in New York was built using prefabricated facades."

The UK Government has invested a huge amount of money in to the increased development of modular construction. Reports issued by the government and the urgency in which we need to find sustainable methods to build mean that modular is easily the next logical step in UK house building.

Tags: Creativity

Alice-India Garwood

Alice-India Garwood

Content Marketing Executive at Bobtrade. Interested in design, sustainability and the history of construction. I love all things indie and theatrical.