The Case for Modular Construction

Feb. 1, 2003
Mogens Smed

Interiors built using modular construction techniques can reap both environmental and economic rewards.

It goes without saying—we all need to be kinder to the environment. However, most North American companies think they have to sacrifice time and money for the sake of greener initiatives. In fact, the opposite is true. Not only can companies achieve environmentally sustainable workplaces, they can do it in a far more economical manner than traditional construction allows. It is done with modular interior construction.Buildings are the biggest overall energy users and create a third of landfill waste. Nearly all of these statistics are due to what goes on inside the building, not outside. While the skeletons of buildings are built to last for several decades, the real problem lies in traditionally built interiors. When a healthy, evolving company inhabits an office, the layout rarely performs for more than one or two years. So it is regularly torn down and built again or the company must make-do with a dysfunctional space. Why? Because companies continue to use building techniques developed in the 19th century: fixed-in-place, wood-frame drywall. (We've since advanced to the metal stud!) Then non-sustainable, location-specific homerun cabling is installed as the technology-base. Finally, the space is overwhelmed with direct lighting levels more suited to conducting rigorous interrogations rather than providing a productive workplace. It is like painting yourself into a corner right from the start. It paints the environment into a corner, too.Modular interior construction consists of movable walls, access flooring, structured cabling, efficient lighting and modular furniture; all specifically built for each office space. These are pre-engineered and manufactured architectural elements and processes. They shorten schedules, lower operating costs and provide complete flexibility. The end result is an excellent long- and short-term investment that delivers an environmentally sustainable office space. Following are assessments of some of the environmental and economic rewards that can be achieved using modular interior construction.SpaceNothing has a greater impact on the environment than the use of space. Saving space also is a win for the budget's bottom line. With the help of a strong and informed design team, and solutions that can fit any building shape, all usable real estate can be taken advantage of, thus saving real estate fees. The smaller footprint also lowers annual operating costs. From the green point of view, fewer materials are used for smaller spaces. And by taking up less actual real estate urban sprawl, a company can alleviate the inherent environmental problems.None of these things has to mean sub-par working conditions or putting people in a claustrophobic space that doesn't perform. A well designed, high-performance space gives workers the aesthetics, comfort and ergonomics rarely found in traditional offices.EnergyNorth Americans are the biggest users of energy in the world. Buildings are the conduits through which we attain that label—they consume 60 percent of all electricity produced. A great deal of that energy is still produced by burning coal. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "If all commercial buildings switched to energy efficient lighting, it would be the (CO2) equivalent of getting 15 million cars off the road." By switching to efficient and effective compact-fluorescent lighting, companies would save energy directly, while HVAC costs are also lowered due to less heat emitted by redundant lighting. Whether a company owns its own space or needs to negotiate a lease, they will save money. Another big way to save energy and money is to implement slim-lined, energy efficient, flat panel computer monitors. These monitors use 37 percent less energy than CRTs and produce 62 percent less heat, which further lowers utility costs. (The ability to use the slim profile of the flat panel monitor also allows designers to re-think and re-size all work stations and create further space savings.)WasteThe waste from the construction, renovation and demolition of buildings equates to 25 to 33 percent of the total solid-waste stream in North America. A modular interior environment—both in the initial construction and future reconfigurations/ renovations—creates a fraction of the material waste. During initial construction architectural elements are built in a controlled manufacturing setting where there should be recycling programs in place and inventory is closely observed. On the job-site, universally distributed technology (a zone box approximately every 20 feet) and movable walls mean that change-orders do not require demolition and re-building. It is the perpetual renovations and reconfigurations where modular interiors drastically lower material waste. Conventional renovation means not only tearing down walls, ripping up carpet and cutting and removing cables, but it all has to be rebuilt again—with trades driving to the job site, using more materials, increasing total embodied energy and disposing of the debris.The Internal EnvironmentWhile demolition isn't great for the environment, it's no picnic for the employees who have to endure the dust, noise and disruption. Employers are responsible for making the workplace safe for their employees. They also can't interfere with the daily business of other tenants in the building. Any kind of traditional construction makes that job more difficult. Renovating with movable walls, modular furniture and zone technology in an access floor costs up to 90 percent less and takes a fraction of the time—all without demolition noise or dust.
The biggest cost to any business is human resources. Office workers cost over 70 times more than the energy bills for an office. That's why, even though it is harder to quantify, the smallest change in productivity can reap the biggest benefits. Indirect ambient lighting lessens screen glare. That along with task lighting for paper work provides comfort and drastically reduces error rates. Flat-screen monitors give off less radiation, flicker less, have a better quality screen and reduce glare. They can also be mounted on ergonomic, articulating arms that will adapt to suit each different employee's size, comfort, eye sight and body type.
Air Pollution
Efficient lighting and computers are definitely one way to cut down on greenhouse gasses (CO2) emitted by the power supplier. But something people forget is that the trades people constructing the building have to drive to the site—over and over and over again. If the office needs even the smallest renovation those trips are compounded. A full-on renovation means starting all over again, but this time a demolition crew has to make several trips to the site, then the construction crews come, and on and on it goes.A pre-engineered, pre-manufactured modular interior means the initial construction schedule is shortened by up to 30 percent. That lessens the number of days trades people have to travel to the site. In addition, because many of the architectural elements have been manufactured, it also reduces the actual number of trades people needed on site. The reduction in vehicle emissions is pronounced while the move-in date is sooner. Credits and TaxesIn many jurisdictions governments offer tax and energy credits for sustainable buildings. In addition to this, architectural elements (including technology) are the owner's property, rather than part of the building, and may therefore be depreciated over five to seven years. (Seventy percent is in the first two years.)Frankly, anyone who says that building an environmentally sustainable office costs more money than traditional construction either hasn't done his homework or has a vested interest in seeing this myth perpetuated. Modular interior construction has been the primary building model for commercial buildings in Europe for over two decades. (In fact, if they continued to build the way North Americans build, we'd need two more earths to support us all!) As North American governments legislate greener initiatives, modular construction will soon be the generic way of building-out everywhere. If you don't embrace it now . . . you will be left behind. Interesting Notes
In 1996 the total CRD (Construction, Renovation, Demolition) waste sent to the landfill was 77,370,000 tons. Six percent of that was from construction, 36 percent was from renovation and 58 percent from demolition.
(Characterization of Building-related Construction and Demolition Debris in the U.S. Prepared for the U.S. EPA by Franklin Associates, Prairie Village, KS)The average commercial building produced 155 lbs. of debris per square foot. ( Green Building Report, May 2002, David Kozlowski)
Existing buildings consume over 40 percent of all energy created, 60 percent of all electricity, 30 percent of all raw materials and create 25 percent of all solid waste mass.
(U.S. Green Building Council; June 12, 2001)
Better light promotes better productivity. Just a one percent productivity improvement translates into a $300 per-employee-per-year savings when the average pay is $30,000 (US). The cost of the electricity consumed? No more than $60.
(The National Lighting Bureau, Building Operating Management, March 2002)

Construction consumes one-quarter of all wood that is cut down. Three billion tons of raw materials are used annually to construct buildings worldwide.
(P. Hawken, A. Lovins and H. Lovins, Natural Capitalism, p.48) After Pennsylvania Power & Light installed improved lighting, productivity jumped by 12.3 percent.
(Rocky Mountain Institute, Greening the Building and the Bottom Line, 1994)
Three million acres of open space are developed each year in the U.S.
(1997 National Resources Inventory)Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimated its churn cost at $2,500 per employee was reduced to $250 through use of raised floor, adjustable systems furnishings and adjustable HVAC. This net saving of $843,750 exceeds the annual energy costs of the facility.Mogens Smed is CEO and founder of SMED International. He started making modular office furniture in 1974, and in 1983 founded SMED Manufacturing. In 1996 the company went public and changed its name to SMED International. In 2000, SMED returned to private ownership when it was bought by Haworth Inc. For information, visit

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