Missed in History: The Evolution of Modular Construction

How long do you think modular construction has been around? What were the first modular buildings? Where did this whole thing start?

You might have guessed that the first modular buildings were residential – and you’re right, though you probably weren’t thinking of the first ever modular homes, which were actually constructed in Australia almost two centuries ago.

Modular construction has been around for almost 200 years, though it’s only started to gain traction as a mainstream building process in the last decade. Why is the history of modular construction important though? Modular processes today don’t look anything like the modular processes of the 20th century. But when we look back, we can see commonalities in efficiency and quality, and the foundation for the emergence of modular construction as we know it today.

Australia, 1837

Henry Manning, a carpenter residing in London, built components for a “Portabel Cottage” which he advertised in The South Australian Record. Manning built the components in London, then shipped them to Australia. One of his structures, a Quaker Meeting House, is still standing in Adelaide today.

Turkey, 1855

The first modular hospital was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel after Florence Nightingale, horrified by poor conditions in barracks and infirmaries, wrote a letter to the London Times asking for help. Renkioi Hospital was designed to improve ventilation and hygiene, and significantly reduced death rates.

America, 1908 

Almost 70 years after Manning’s Portabel Cottages appear in Australia, Sears Roebuck offered “build-a-home” kits, popularizing the first modular buildings in America. These kit homes came in over 40 styles and were marketed to people heading west during the California Gold Rush. The kits were shipped by train and arrived with all the necessities for assembly, as well as a detailed set of instructions. The homes were high-quality; at least two hundred are still standing in Illinois today.

Europe/America, 1930’s and ‘40’s

During World War II, the British used modular buildings for military housing and hangars, as well as temporary housing for British citizens that lost their homes. After the war, many American soldiers purchased modular homes when they returned to the United States.

America, 1950’s – early 2000’s

Through most of the late 20thCentury, modular buildings were mostly residential. Schools and some businesses and hospitals used relocatable modular buildings, but permanent modular construction was not well respected or adopted by most architects or contractors. Frank Lloyd Wright popularized modular for a brief period, but modular wouldn’t gain traction in mainstream construction for another several decades.


Present Day

Modular construction is more popular than ever and may have finally gained the respect it deserves from the building industry. What changed? The quality of modular buildings has been exceptional from the beginning (as evidenced by both Manning’s Quaker House and the Sears Roebuck homes that are still standing), though with new industry technology the quality of modular buildings may actually surpass that of traditionally constructed buildings.

Modular construction is also faster than it’s ever been. The 1,000 bed Renkioi Hospital was designed in just 6 days and shipped in 5 months. While the design might take a little longer than that for a modern modular building, it is feasible to construct a multifamily residential building in 6-8 months using modular methods. In 2013, McDonalds constructed a 43,000 SF restaurant in West Virginia in just 43 days.

Better, faster, cheaper, more sustainable. Modular construction offers a rare all-around positive solution to the current building climate, which is facing a labor crisis and skyrocketing costs for traditional construction.