Modular Building Institute
O'Connell East Architects design 
24-story modular

Europe's tallest modular building—a $34 million UK project—is currently under construction. Designed by O'Connell East Architects of Manchester, the 24 story student dormitory is made up of 805 modules and will be built in 27 weeks. Here Jenny Hayes, RIBA from O'Connell East Architects speaks with MBI about their modular system as a solution for multi-story accelerated building.

MBI: What is the history of the practice, and the impetus behind its recent shift toward incorporating modular construction methods?
Hayes: The opening commission for the practice in 1996 was to design the first privately owned student accommodation scheme in Manchester for Victoria Hall - also the Client for the Wolverhampton development. Although it wasn't realized at the time, student accommodation schemes were to become a significant part - effectively the mainstay of future work for the practice. Investment in student accommodation projects has grown massively over the last 13 years and the sector is well established - and whilst not "recession proof" - has been coping well in the current economic climate.

The early privately operated developments were designed as apartment blocks and were low rise, low maintenance, built of traditional load-bearing construction and constructed to very tight budgets. In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the market. The availability of fewer and smaller centrally located sites and the rising costs of land, materials and transportation has meant that developers have had to consider higher density, high rise developments and alternative methods of construction to continue expansion of their growing portfolios.

MBI: Has O'Connell East used modular construction/design in the past for multi-story projects?
Hayes: This is the first time that we have been involved in delivering an off-site volumetric multi-storey development. Over the past few years we have experienced an increased preference to the incorporation of off-site components. In particular bathroom pods and we have used the likes of European Ensuites, Farquahar and Baudet. We have found that utilizing off-site components can offer dramatic savings in terms of time and improve/simplify on-site coordination. We continue to identify other aspects of new-build developments that can incorporate off-site elements and have recently been involved in designing 200 apartments with KLH who manufacture panelized cross-laminated timber wall/floor structures.

Wolverhampton development, student accommodation in Manchester. Photos courtesy O'Connell East Architects :: View all project photos

MBI: What led you to offer modular construction as the solution for this 24-story building?
Hayes: The main argument behind using an off-site volumetric solution for the Wolverhampton development was one of programme. Modular construction was identified early after receiving planning approval as it would deliver the build one academic year ahead of a traditional build. This method of construction not only reduces time on site, but will allow Victoria Hall to generate revenues ahead of their anticipated programme.

MBI: Did the modular solution offer the same aesthetic appeal?
Hayes: The Wolverhampton scheme was not originally designed with a modular construction method in mind, so we could say that the aesthetic side of the argument had already been considered, developed and approved by the local planning authority (LPA). In Architectural terms, the challenges of converting the build from traditional to modular were mostly related to the planning issues, which required structural changes in the design. None of those changes were critical to the overall aesthetic of the buildings, and were successfully incorporated within the scheme to the satisfaction of the LPA.

MBI: Based on the success of this project what general audiences (in your opinion) have overlooked the benefits that the modular/accelerated construction solution has to offer?
Hayes: Off-Site Construction (OSC) is increasingly recognised as a major contributor to improving the efficiency of the UK construction industry. Clients too are beginning to recognise the benefits of OSC.

:: More predictable costs
:: Faster and more predictable delivery - earlier occupation and revenue
:: Less time on site, so less disruption of other activities
:: Safer - building site hazards reduced to a minimum
:: Manufacturing type Quality Assurance
:: Improved building performance efficiency

Modular construction is well suited to apartments, key worker accommodation, care homes, hotel units and student residences due to their compartmentalized nature and repetitive floor plates for servicing arrangements. But it is important to note that modular construction methods do not have to hamper design flair if considered from the outset and designers can be mindful of costs relating to transfer structures.

About O'Connell East Archtiects (OEA). O'Connell East Architects are based in north-west England in Manchester and are a small to medium sized practice with a substantial portfolio of work which includes apartments, university education projects, offices and marketing suites, student accommodation all over the UK and the conversion of listed buildings. They are also Consultants to the University of Manchester and have completed many projects for the University, and Manchester Metropolitan University. For more information, visit

To learn more about commercial modular construction and its applications, visit Modular Building Institute: The Voice of Commercial Modular ConstructionTM.

(c) 2009. Modular Building Institute. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of the Modular Building Institute.


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