Modular building describes a system based on pre-fabricated elements or modules. Above and beyond its use as a classifier, it also refers to the “totality of objects within a holistic context”. A system is an existing whole comprising a certain quantity of individual parts. It is defined by the relation between the individual parts and between the individual and the whole.
This definition is also used in the construction industry, where it is described by such terms as “system building” or “modular building”. The main feature is that the aim is to achieve a more “holistic”, systematic consideration of planning and building. Other terms used in the context of modular building include “industrialised building” and “prefabrication”.
In modular building, planning, tendering, production, assembly and use are generally coordinated with each other in an overarching “totality” or “production process”, taking into account room sizes and their connections, their modular layout, and the resulting geometrical definition, element dimensions and relative position, and joining techniques.
Accordingly, the aim of “industrial construction” is to advance the mechanisation and partial automation of production processes in factories. As a result, it is possible to increase productivity and component quality in weatherproofed production conditions. All in all, this leads to a high level of process reliability, predictable planning effort, and easier cost control.
But because the building cannot be prefabricated completely, the degree of modularity entails certain requirements and criteria.
Looking at historical references, we can see that modular concepts have always been designed as pinpoint individual solutions for a building site or specific building task. In an initial analysis, it was not possible to find an urban development plan for these container or capsule/module buildings. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder why this mode of construction has not become established as a strategy for inner-city redensification. One fundamental trait of modular building is the principle of incorporating separate modules into an overarching grid system. Similar to a two-dimensional “pixel” on the computer screen, this system defines a three-dimensional resolution or grid on the building site. In the context of developing sites with extreme requirements that was the aim of the project, the question is to what extent this grid creates useless leftover areas or can be made adaptable for special spatial situations. The finer the grid, the fewer leftover areas are created, with modular building developing towards prefabricated element construction. A basic challenge in terms of planning is to provide the infrastructure, for example site development and building services, at each point in the grid system.
There are two fundamental system approaches. In a first step, we can describe modular building in two basic categories that each has different requirements. On the one hand, modules can be arranged in a load-bearing primary structure and, on the other, they can be conceived as separate self-supporting, stackable objects. With modules arranged within a primary structure – i.e. in a kind of shelf system – the requirements to be met by the load-bearing system shift from the individual module to the overarching structure. With stackable systems, each individual module must support itself and also be able to transfer the loads from modules above or surrounding it.