Helping increase confidence in modular construction as an effective, efficient, and resilient building process
Modular buildings are not a new concept in the construction industry. Historically, preassembled modules provided a quick and affordable solution for fast-growing housing demands, expanded the capacity of health care and educational facilities in communities, or temporarily housed industry workers close to the project site.
With technological advancements and innovations, modular construction can now satisfy more than single-family or relocatable housing needs. A 40-storey residential tower in Singapore and a 44-storey building in London, UK, are just a few examples of more ambitious and successful modular projects.
Benefits of modular construction for industry and communities
Faster project completion and cost savings are not the only benefits of modular construction. With the modules being manufactured in the controlled environment of a factory, weather conditions become less of an issue – something Canadians specifically can appreciate. The lower probability of construction safety incidents in a controlled environment, compared to the traditional on-site construction, is also an important factor for an industry with higher than average incident rates. The positive environmental impacts of modular construction, resulting from reduced transportation needs and waste production, make the method even more attractive.
Plus, any community that experienced disruptions to traffic, businesses, and overall quality of life of its residents due to a prolonged construction project would be excited by shorter and cleaner on-site construction.
Why is Canada lagging in modular construction?
Many countries around the world, including the US, Australia, Singapore, and the UK, have embraced modular construction as a way to keep up with the projected demand for new housing. In Canada, however, only 4% of all 2018 projects involved modular buildings. Why, despite all the advantages, is modular construction in Canada lagging?
A complicated and slow approval process for modular projects may be one of the main reasons. As an earlier CSA Group research report, High-Rise Modular Construction – A review of the regulatory landscape and Considerations for Growth (June 2020) suggests, it is likely that many industry professionals are not familiar with the modular construction method and the process of certification. At the same time, manufacturers of the building modules, engineers, and developers may not be as familiar with the roles and responsibilities of regulators in different jurisdictions. These issues can create more roadblocks, slow approvals, and contribute to duplication of in-factory and on-site inspections.
Inconsistent regulatory landscape slows approval process
The challenges in uptake of modular construction are due, in part, to inconsistent adoption of modular standards across Canada. Although modular construction must adhere to the requirements of building codes, how the modular process is addressed varies between jurisdictions.
While most Canadian provinces adopt the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) in its entirety, some introduce their own NBC-based codes with significant additions or deletions, or create bylaws applicable in their regions. With the modular factory and the actual building site often located in different jurisdictions, having two sets of regulations can complicate the situation even further. This also applies to the process of obtaining a building permit, as well as off-site and on-site inspections during the project.
CSA A277-16, Procedure for certification of prefabricated buildings, modules, and panels, provides a good example. The Standard is referenced in the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) in an informal capacity, and formal adoption of the CSA A277 is currently at the discretion of jurisdictions. Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec reference various editions of CSA A277 in their building codes. In these Provinces, when a modular product is certified in accordance with CSA A277, the consequent approval process can be fairly smooth. Using the same modular construction product in other Canadian jurisdictions, the constructor would have to apply for its approval as an alternative solution. Such a process can be quite costly and time-consuming.
This inconsistency in code adoption is not isolated to modular construction, however. Recognizing this, Federal, provincial and territorial governments have made significant progress towards harmonizing the adoption of the NBC across Canada in a timely manner. This work should help reduce the inconsistencies, including those for modular construction.
New Standard helps facilitate faster project completion
Over the last couple of years, CSA Group performed extensive research to identify key opportunities to support modular construction through new standards and guidelines. The development of the recently published National Standard of Canada, CSA Z250:21, was one of the research recommendations.
CSA Z250:21, Process for delivery of volumetric modular buildings aims at supporting municipalities in providing affordable and sustainable housing in their communities. This Standard describes the main differences between traditional and modular construction, helping those involved in regulatory permitting, inspection, and approvals better understand the off-site building component, quality control programs, and certification processes.
This Standard also maps a general approval process and roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders throughout the entire modular construction project. This can help constructors understand the requirements of the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), including details that the drawings and documentation of a modular construction project must include.
Further, this Standard’s informative annexes bring additional useful information – an overview of applicable building codes and regulations in different jurisdictions, an example of a scope of work document, and an overview of project delivery methods.
Overall, CSA Z250:21 can help reduce redundancies by providing a consistent approach to approving modular construction projects. That can result in smoother and faster inspections, approvals, and shorter project completion times. It also helps increase the confidence of industry stakeholders and the community in modular construction as an effective, efficient, and resilient building process.
More guidance for project approvals
To help further streamline the process of modular projects approvals, CSA Group has commenced work on a new guideline. CSA Z252, A modular construction guide to best practices in obtaining permits, facilitating inspections, and issuing approvals, will focus on providing guidance for AHJ and third-part inspection agencies (TPIA). The Guide will help them understand what they can expect at each stage of the building permit review, off-site and on-site inspections, and approvals. It will also outline the scope, roles, and responsibilities of TPIAs within the modular construction process. CSA Z252 is anticipated to publish in August 2023.
 National Work Injury, Disease, and Fatality Statistics; The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, https://awcbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/National-Work-Injury-Disease-and-Fatality-Statistics-2017-2019.pdf
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