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Kolbeck, L.; Kovaleva, D.; Manny, A.; Stieler, D.; Rettinger, M.; Renz, R.; Tošić, Z.; Teschemacher, T.; Stindt, J.; Forman, P.; et al. Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56581 (accessed on 26 May 2024).
Kolbeck L, Kovaleva D, Manny A, Stieler D, Rettinger M, Renz R, et al. Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56581. Accessed May 26, 2024.
Kolbeck, Lothar, Daria Kovaleva, Agemar Manny, David Stieler, Martin Rettinger, Robert Renz, Zlata Tošić, Tobias Teschemacher, Jan Stindt, Patrick Forman, et al. "Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56581 (accessed May 26, 2024).
Kolbeck, L., Kovaleva, D., Manny, A., Stieler, D., Rettinger, M., Renz, R., Tošić, Z., Teschemacher, T., Stindt, J., Forman, P., Borrmann, A., Blandini, L., Stempniewski, L., Stark, A., Menges, A., Schlaich, M., Albers, A., Lordick, D., Bletzinger, K., ...Mark, P. (2024, April 13). Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56581
Kolbeck, Lothar, et al. "Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems." Encyclopedia. Web. 13 April, 2024.
Modularisation in Construction and Precast Building Systems
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Modular precast construction is a methodological approach to reduce environmental impacts and increase productivity when building with concrete. Constructions are segmented into similar precast concrete elements, prefabricated with integrated quality control, and assembled just-in-sequence on site. Due to the automatised prefabrication, inaccuracies are minimised and the use of high-performance materials is enabled. 

precast design modular design modular construction industrial building construction

1. Introduction

The demand for construction has been increasing steadily for decades because of the global growth of the population and economy. According to forecasts, the Earth’s population will increase by about 2 billion by the year 2050 [1]. This corresponds to the entire world population of 1930. Approximately the same amount of infrastructure that existed at that time will have to be built within the next 30 years—in addition to the maintenance and replacement construction of existing structures [2]. High-rise buildings [3][4][5] exhibit the potential to overcome this demand for new housing and can be designed to be resource-efficient [6][7] and are particularly suitable for modular construction [8][9]. Yet, the construction industry already causes about 38% of global CO2 emissions [10]. With (reinforced) concrete as the most used building material worldwide, cement production alone accounts for 7–8% of CO2 emissions [11], making it the largest single global emitter among all materials used by humans. The situation is similar with regards to the demand for the raw materials of concrete, such as water, sand, and gravel, which has been increasing continuously for years, disproportionately to the likewise increasing world population. Already, 85% of mineral raw materials are used for construction [12].
To achieve climate neutrality targets by 2050 (in Europe) and a limitation of global warming below 2 °C or 1.5 °C by 2100, compared to the preindustrial age [13], a drastic reduction in emissions is necessary. Yet, in the concrete industry there are several fields of action that offer an opportunity for this: first, the energetic optimisation of raw material production by optimising the concrete mixture and the production processes; second, the adjustment of the design strategies of buildings, their systems, and elements to improve structural efficiency, e.g., using structural optimisation [14]; and third, the optimisation of the fabrication and construction process [15]. In contrast to the current practice of on-site construction, industrialised prefabrication allows for increased quality management, optimised material flows with reduced waste, and significantly minimised disruptions in the adjoining traffic networks by decreasing the construction time on-site. The combination of modular design methods and industrialised production also makes it possible to improve the resilience of precast structural systems, enabling their adaptability to new functional requirements, the reuse of building stock, and the minimisation of demolition costs at the end of life.
The historical development of modular concepts and systems of prefabricated concrete structures is closely linked to the industrialisation of the construction industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. By the first decade of the 20th century, both in Europe and the US, concepts of prefabrication were applied to concrete construction, first at the scale of single elements and later at the level of building systems.

2. Early Precast Systems and Modularisation Concepts—From Element to System

At the end of the 19th century, various patents were filed for individual structural precast elements, such as beams and columns by Francois Coignet (1854) [16] or precast slabs and wall panels by W.H. Lascelles (1875) [17].
In 1891, Coignet’s use of precast reinforced concrete beams in the Biarritz Casino [18], followed by Hennebique’s introduction of room-sized modules in the Singleman Houses in 1896 [19] and John Alexander Brodie’s application of factory-made concrete panels in Liverpool’s Eldon Street Mass Housing project around 1905 [20], marked significant early developments in prefabricated housing construction.
In the early 1910s, according to their inventors, the “Ransome Unit System” and “Unit Structural Concrete Method” were touted as revolutionary in precast construction, claiming to offer a 20% cost reduction and faster installation than traditional in situ methods (Figure 1a) [16]. Influenced by Fordist and Taylorist principles, early 20th-century modernist architects like Gropius advocated for prefabricated components and rationalised housing, envisioning “industrial assembly factories” for on-site assembly, emphasising that the goal is not repetition but the “individual house off the shelf” [21][22].
Figure 1. Early modular open systems in theory and practice of construction: (a) the Conzelmann’s patented “Unit Structural Concrete Method”, 1912 [16]; (b) the Bemis cubical 4-inch module, 1936 [23].
From the beginning of modular construction, architects employed a great deal of creativity to individualise and customise structures while relying on standardised, mass-produced building elements. One of the first definitions of the term “modularity” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) originates directly from developments in the construction industry in the 1930s. The OED defines the word “module” as “a length chosen as the basis for the dimensions of the parts of a building, esp. one to be constructed from prefabricated components” and identifies the origin of this definition in the book The Evolving House, Vol. III [23] by the American industrialist and architect Albert Farwell Bemis from 1936 (Figure 1b). Bemis proposed a cubic four-inch building module as the basis for the standardisation of all kinds of building components and as a starting point for the fundamental reorganisation of the building industry towards the design and production of buildings based on one open system. The core idea to use parts with standard dimensions to coordinate architectural elements provides the foundation for another definition the OED gives, which describes a module as “a component of a larger or more complex system”. Here, concepts of standardisation and interchangeability have replaced size, measurement, and proportion as the core characteristics of modularity [24].
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Automatic Building System, introduced in the 1950s, offered a standardised kit of parts on a two-foot-square grid, yet its strict tolerances limited its application to a few projects [25]. Throughout the early 20th century, the construction industry’s focus on individual projects and the high costs of R&D meant that open modular systems were rarely implemented beyond theoretical models [26]. This reflected a fundamental misalignment with the economies of scale that modular construction required, contrasting sharply with the bespoke nature and variable demands of the construction reality, where customisation and site-specific adaptations often took precedence.

3. The Second Half of the 20th Century—Mass Production and Standardisation

After the Second World War, standardisation was considered a promising solution to fulfil the urgent need for new buildings [27]. Therefore, the period between 1945 and 1970 was often considered the Mass Production and Standardisation Period, marked by the rise of closed modular systems for housing reconstruction in Europe and Southeast Asia, aiming to optimise costs and speed but limiting the interchangeability of components across different systems [18].
One of the most utilised systems was the I-464 housing system, often described as a refined version of the Camus system, developed in 1951 by the French automotive engineer Raymond Camus [28]. While there was little difference in the function and production of both systems, the Camus system lost much of its popularity from the 1960s onwards. This was mainly due to high transportation costs, making prefabrication only profitable within a small radius around a prefabrication plant, and a greater demand by architects for a variety of forms to suit different sites and circumstances. While the state-owned factories in the USSR were less directly dependent on the wants and needs of a consumer market, Camus faced difficulties in finding enough orders to operate his factories at full load, forcing their closure by the mid-1960s [29].
As an exemplar of versatility in prefabrication, the Variel System, devised by Fritz Stucky in 1958, heralded a departure from rigid panelisation, enabling multidimensional assembly for structures as diverse as schools and high-rises, achieving a global reach before succumbing to the shifting tides of the construction industry [30][31][32][33]. According to Hernández, this general decline in the usage of precast systems marks the start of a new phase characterised by rethinking the design of precast building systems [18]. He describes the time between 1970 and 1985 as the beginning of the “Open Prefabrication Period” when firms started to produce more systems with several compatible components and prioritised flexible component assembly over large-scale modules. Hernandez claims that industrialised construction with high rigidity systems is now practically out of sight in developed countries [18], and modular construction seeks to address the growing demand for individualised projects. The utilisation of highly differentiated building elements does not only address aesthetic concerns but also forms the foundation for more material-efficient and material-specific constructions from precast concrete elements [34].

4. Modular Precast Construction in the 21st Century—Automation and Individualisation

From 1985 onward, the digitisation of the industry began, including the appearance and spread of computer-aided design (CAD) systems for creating electronic product data and programmable logic controller (PLC) systems for the control of automated machines. The labour force needed to produce mass customised modular precast elements could be significantly lowered [35]. For standardised elements with high repetition rates, a full CAD to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) interface could soon be achieved [36]. Modules with adaptable measures could be manufactured while maintaining an economy of scale. Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems with programmable, algorithmic design logic and CAM interfaces were documented as early as 2004 [37].
The continued technological advancement and incorporation of digital planning alongside production processes are poised to significantly enhance the scale, efficiency, and manageability of product complexity within the precast industry [38][39][40]. The increasing lack of labour forces, the need to create affordable housing in metropolitan regions, and the foreseeable high demand for the renovation of old infrastructure underline the necessity to further advance automation processes in precast construction [41]. The evolution towards higher ecological standards and CO2 pricing policies is fostering a shift towards more intricately designed, shape-optimised, and quality-controlled precast elements with minimal tolerances [14][42][43].

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