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The Europe wide ManuBuild project could revolutionise the continent’s housebuilding sector by delivering faster and more sustainable houses by using modular off-site construction with standardised components. 

Recent plans unveiled by Gordon Brown’s government to build three million new homes by 2020, coupled with a decline in the number of skilled tradesmen in the UK, means there is a need to deploy fewer workers on site by employing new and innovative housebuilding methodologies.

ManuBuild, a four-year project and the largest ever part EU funded European construction scheme, has been initiated to address this issue. The project value is €45.8M, including contributions from industry, the highest European Union funding ever awarded to a research and development project in the construction industry.

The project aims to allow customers in the future to purchase high quality, manufactured buildings with a high degree of design flexibility and at a lower cost than today. For the first time, inspirational unconstrained building design will be combined with highly efficient industrialised and standardised production.

Currently construction processes are seen as being very fragmented across Europe and are a
long way behind the automotive and aerospace industries. ManuBuild wants to change current construction methods towards more unconstrained design combined with ultra-efficient manufacturing leading to industrial style construction. By utilising more modular type off-site construction methods the industry will reap the benefits of injury-free sites, zero-defect buildings, dramatically reduced build times and carbon neutrality.

Open building
The project wants to open up the supply chain, allowing any number of modular off-site suppliers to offer standardised products and components combined with design flexibility. Potential impacts of the strategy include a significant reduction in waste, cost and the time it takes to construct buildings. This will ultimately improve Europe’s building stock, while also releasing resources that can be allocated to other important industrial sectors. ManuBuild calls this approach the “Open Building Manufacture system”.

Architect Steve Thompson of Corus Construction Services & Development, says this open system will allow greater flexibility and choice for customers seeking modular construction.

“The system combines value driven, innovative, efficient and safe manufacturing and assembly in factories and construction sites, and an open system for products and components offering diversity of supply and building component configuration.

“ManuBuild is taking a new approach to overcoming some of the associated challenges by combining four key elements – building concepts, business processes, production technologies and ICT support,” he explains.

At the project’s inception more than 100 stakeholders were interviewed, to get their opinions about the specific features of ManuBuild and align the project according to the different geographical areas. Project partners include Sweden, the UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Finland. All these nations have different building trends and needs and stakeholders were able to map out a strategic roadmap acceptable to all.

Since the implementation of ManuBuild, the stakeholders expect major advantages such as higher quality, real time control of the construction process, more cost efficiency and controlled structure manufacturing.

Steel involvement
ManuBuild has 23 European partners, led by Corus, the only steel manufacturer to be involved with the project, along with architects, contractors, developers, materials producers and public authorities.

Although the project is non-material specific, steel inherently lends itself to this flexible modular and off-site construction. As part of the ManuBuild project Corus has developed the Corus Building System – initially for two to seven-storey residential blocks – this system makes use of rectangular hollow sections to produce corner supported building modules.

The frame and infill of these modules will always be produced off-site allowing for a more sustainable approach. The module design uses standard components and allows complete freedom in module sizes up to their maximum spans. This means total flexibility and also allows for future re- configuration. A number of modules may initially be bolted together to form a two-bedroom flat with a large living room/kitchen area. This same apartment could in the future – simply by the occupant moving a couple of walls – be re-configured into a three bedroom flat. The same concept would even work on a larger scale, whereby all apartments on one floor could be re-configured. For example four three- bedroom flats could become five two-bedroom apartments.

“It isn’t usually possible or suitable to guess the needs of occupants in the future,” says Mr Thompson. “This meant adopting a flexible approach whereby internal walls are easily movable and modules can be taken out of a structure and moved or even replaced.”

These steel-framed modules can be equipped with various cladding materials and because of their standardised construction, could be available from a number of sources.

However, one of the key design elements of the Corus module is the integration of services within floors. “By integrating the services there will be less on-site work and this allows for much quicker installation of the modules and frees up valuable plan space,” says Mr Thompson.

The Corus system has also developed long span floor beams for easy re-configuration of space. These high performance spans are up to 8m long and will be of a composite design.

Demonstrations
A detailed study was carried out to develop three main medium rise apartment typologies – Nordic, Central European and Mediterranean, and to assess what the residential markets are looking for in each region, and what is seen as architectural quality. The Central European typology includes assessments of the Code for Sustainable Homes and how the Corus system can support this and similar market needs in the future.

A central European demonstration building is being built by ManuBuild partner Taylor Wimpey on a site in Telford. Here low-rise two-storey housing units are to be constructed using the Corus Building System of corner supported modules made from rectangular hollow sections. The whole off-site modular construction features steel frame and in-fill, and perfectly demonstrates steel’s flexibility and cost efficiency.

Concurrently a Mediterranean demonstration project is under way in Madrid and also features Corus system concepts. This scheme consists of two apartment blocks – one four-storeys high and the other with seven-floors – and both featuring a top floor of penthouses.

The higher structure is being entirely constructed as a steel framed building, while the four-storey apartment block is concrete framed except for the top floor of penthouses. The architects for the Spanish demonstration project expect to make an up to 60% saving in energy consumption by using the ManuBuild modular system.

“These projects will fully demonstrate the advantages the off-site modular approach has for the housing market across Europe,” sums up Mr Thompson. “Speed of construction, flexibility and standardised components will mean a more sustainable housing market.”

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