Skip to content

The Environmental Impact of Traditional vs. Modular Construction

As the planet's population is growing at a rate of over 1% per year, the toll on the environment has been significant. While people are talking about plastic pollution, ozone depletion, and greenhouse gas emissions, hardly everyone understands the substantial impact of traditional construction methods and benefits offered by modular construction.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 569 million tons of C&D debris were generated in the United States in 2017. Other resources suggest that construction is responsible for 23% of air pollution and 40% of the drinking water pollution.

Construction companies from all over the world are struggling to reduce their impact on the environment. One of the most effective methods is using modular construction.

Less Waste, More Output

One of the biggest problems that traditional construction companies face is waste. The rough estimation is that about 30% of the total weight of building materials is wasted at the construction site.

The basic concept behind modular construction (creating building modules off-site and then assembling them on-site) lowers the amount of generated waste tremendously. According to a study done by the Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), off-site construction can reduce waste to 1.8%.

For example, a small 25,000 square foot office building produces about 100,000 pounds of waste. If modular construction is used, the amount can be reduced to about 1,800 pounds. The difference is impressive.

Higher Potential for Recycling

Traditionally constructed buildings generate a substantial amount of waste during demolition. According to the EPA, demolition makes up more than 90% of the total construction and development debris generation.

Modular construction offers a possibility of creating relocatable buildings, thus eliminating the need for demolition when they are no longer needed. Meanwhile, permanent modular buildings have a higher potential for recycling as well. They can be reworked for future projects.

Less Noise Pollution

Since the majority of modular building construction is done offsite in controlled factory environments, noise pollution is minimal.

Excessive noise produced at construction sites isn't just annoying and frustrating, it can lead to hearing loss, blood pressure spikes, sleep problems, and extreme stress, not only for on-site workers but neighbors as well. That's why modular construction is highly beneficial for hospitals, schools, and offices.

Less Energy Waste

Since the time spent on-site with modular construction compared to conventional methods is minimized, so is the energy waste. Construction workers spend less time and energy by doing their job in an unchanged setting without any traditional construction site distractions, such as noise or weather. Accordingly, their productivity goes up considerably.

Additionally, constructing modules in a factory-like setting requires the design to be completed in advance. As a result, fewer change orders are entered during the construction process, thus saving time, money, and energy.

Since modular construction doesn't need as much space as conventional construction methods, the adjustments to the surrounding infrastructure are minimal. Accordingly, the process requires less energy.

As a bonus, it's easy to incorporate such energy-efficient options into modules as occupancy sensors for lights, energy-efficient windows, solar panels, and high-efficiency HVAC systems.

Better Construction Quality

Since modular construction is performed in a controlled factory environment, many mistakes can be avoided. One of the biggest integrity hazards in construction is moisture. Using dry materials inside the factory can prevent moisture entrapment, thus saving energy and reducing material waste.

Fewer Transportation Emissions

With heavy machinery and multiple workers going back and forth to the construction site, the transportation emissions for conventional construction are high.

Since with modular construction, the majority of work is done within a factory, the amount of on-site emissions goes down substantially.

Eco-Friendly Materials

Many modular construction companies focus on using eco-friendly building materials, lowering the environmental impact while reducing waste production. In addition, many other companies have become adept at reusing existing materials, such as freight and shipping containers, to create new buildings, further reducing material waste.

Even though the entire construction industry is trying to reduce its impact on the environment, traditional construction methods are having a tough time competing with modular construction. Its ability to cut waste, offer better construction quality, lower transportation emissions, and reduce noise pollution is virtually unbeatable.

More from Modular Advantage

Inside the Construction of 355 Sango Court

This year’s winner for Best of Show for Permanent Structures is 355 Sango Court, a 105,818 square foot affordable housing development manufactured by Nampa, Idaho based Autovol. The project team also included Prefab Logic for module design, Nibbi Brothers as the general contractor, Acc U Set Construction as the modular installer, and the overall project design was by David Baker Architects and DCI and Fard.

Aster Place by ROC Modular

Aster Place, a supportive housing building in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, won the Best of Show Award and Honorable Mention for relocatable structures in the social and supportive housing category at this year’s World of Modular conference.

Looking Back at the 2024 World of Modular

On March 18-21, the Modular Building Institute presented its 41st annual
convention and tradeshow, hosted again at the luxurious the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, FL. Nearly 1,500 attendees from around the world gathered to learn, network, and find ways to expand both their businesses and the industry at-large.

Touring Japan’s Offsite Construction Industry: An Interview with James Haas, Offsite Construction Sales Manager for Nichiha

Nichiha USA, a premier provider of building envelope solutions and member of the Modular Building Institute (MBI), recently partnered with MBI for a trip to Japan to visit the Nichiha home office in Nagoya as well as several other offsite manufacturers around the country. Besides learning about different offsite building methodologies and systems, the trip was an excellent chance for both MBI and Nichiha to create closer ties with potential industry partners in Japan.

Modular Multi-family Construction: A Field Study of Energy Code Compliance and Performance through Offsite Prefabrication

Prefabrication in a factory setting may improve the performance of modular buildings compared to traditional site-built buildings. To validate this premise, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funded a 3-year study from 2020-2023 comparing the energy performance of more than 50 modular and site-built multifamily buildings under construction in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Inflation Comes in Hot to Begin ’24

Last year was a shockingly good one for the U.S. economy, at least relative to expectations. Coming into 2023, the conventional wisdom was that near-term recession was inevitable in America. In the face of belligerent excess inflation (above the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent mandate), monetary policymakers began ratcheting interest rates higher in March 2022. That process continued throughout the balance of the year and into 2023.

A Huge Win for the Modular Construction Industry in Massachusetts

In early February, 2024, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) released its proposed 10th Edition building codes. This draft included several amendments targeting modular construction that would have created an extremely difficult environment for the entire modular industry and could have eliminated the industry entirely in the state.

FEMA Announces Hawaii Housing Plan Using Modular Construction

Utah becomes the second state in the country, following Virginia, to fully adopt ICC/MBI standards 1200 and 1205. MBI will continue to work with leadership in Utah to implement the new program.

Supply and Demand: Solving Canada’s Housing Crisis One Relocatable Housing Unit at a Time

Not only do Moda Modular’s repurposed employee housing solutions cut the emissions related to construction down to nearly zero, but they also keep building materials that are often not biodegradable from slowly decaying in storage facilities.
It’s the classic environmental mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle, scaled up and applied to building after building.

ICC/MBI Standards 1200 & 1205 Provide Foundation for Utah’s First-Ever State Modular Program

Utah becomes the second state in the country, following Virginia, to fully adopt ICC/MBI standards 1200 and 1205. MBI will continue to work with leadership in Utah to implement the new program.