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Portakabin celebrates 45 years of modular construction

The modular building industry is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year as industry leader, Portakabin, celebrates its 45th birthday.

The launch of the first modular building company in 1961 marked the dawn of a new era for the construction sector. The idea for a relocatable building was originally thought of in the 1940s by Portakabin founder Donald Shepherd, who went on to develop his concept, register the Portakabin trade mark and begin production of the first Portakabin buildings in 1961.

Since then the modular building industry has grown dramatically and is now worth hundreds of millions of pounds, with a number of companies providing a wide range of accommodation solutions.

The last eight years in particular have seen modular buildings playing an increasingly important role in the construction sector, with Sir John Egan’s 1998 Rethinking Construction report playing a key part in this.

Rethinking Construction and the subsequent Accelerating Change report called for a radical review of the way in which construction projects are undertaken. Sir John called for a reduction in the price of construction projects, as well as for developments to be completed on time, on budget and with fewer defects.

The publication of the reports, and the challenges they laid out, provided an excellent opportunity for the modular building market. Due to its factory-controlled production, this type of construction can reduce building time by up to 50 per cent. It is also less disruptive to the surrounding area of the site, as well as being safer, quieter and cleaner for the duration of the project.

Looking to the future

So, in this milestone year, what does the future hold for the modular building industry? Paul Blackwell, Product Development Manager at Portakabin, says the pace of change for the sector, and indeed the construction industry as a whole, has never been greater. He explains: ‘The 45th anniversary of the modular building industry marks a key turning point for the sector. Never before has the pace of change been so rapid.

‘Unprecedented alterations in energy efficiency regulations are key drivers for some of these changes. Ongoing amendments to Part L (Conservation of Fuel & Power) and Part F (Ventilation) of National Building Regulations in support of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, for example, are already starting to have a big impact on the construction industry. The amended regulations, which come into force in April 2006, require a total re-think of the process in which buildings are designed and procured. This must be done in order to achieve ongoing improvements in energy efficiency and the corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions resulting from their use.

‘At Portakabin we are already manufacturing buildings, such as the Ultima building system, which has been specifically designed to improve insulation and air tightness, therefore reducing CO2 emissions. Independent tests carried out by the Building Research Establishment showed that the Ultima building system exceeded the Building Regulations Part L maximum allowable air permeability criteria by around 90%.

‘The amendments to Part L also offer a fantastic opportunity for the modular building industry as a whole, as the energy required to manufacture modular buildings is significantly less than that required to construct buildings traditionally.

‘In addition, modular buildings offer an alternative and sustainable solution to traditional buildings in that they can be relocated to other sites when required. This reduces the need for landfill, while the embodied energy in them is also preserved.’

Sustainable solutions

Sustainability will continue to be a major issue for the industry over the coming years. The formation of the Sustainable Procurement Task Force last year has led to a major change in the way the public sector procures its services. This is again a very positive step, offering an excellent opportunity for off-site construction.

Paul continued, ‘The introduction of the Sustainable Procurement Task Force action plan in April 2006 aims to bring about a step-change in sustainable public procurement so that the UK is among the leaders in the EU by 2009. At present only 20% of the UK’s £125bn annual public spend is ‘green’, compared to a European average of 40%.

‘Modular buildings are set to play a massive part in achieving these targets. They are fully relocatable, therefore eliminating the need to construct a new building from scratch saving a huge amount of energy. In addition, the production of modular buildings also creates far less waste than traditional building projects.

‘This is due to their factory controlled production, which generates far less waste than traditional construction methods. For example, surplus material can easily be returned to storage in a factory for use on a future modular building project. On a building site, however, it is often cheaper to scrap excess material than it is to move it to another site.’

Environmental energy

Paul also believes that environmental issues in general will continue to gain momentum and increase in importance over the next ten years. Demand for environmentally friendly measures such as alternative energy sources will continue to grow. This is something that the modular building industry must start to build in to plans when thinking about future design concepts for buildings.

Linked to this is climate change. A key topic for a number of years now since the introduction of the Climate Change Levy in April 2001, the change in the British climate has become increasingly apparent over the last few years. This will also have an impact on the future of the modular building industry as Paul explains, ‘It will become increasingly necessary to look toward new and evolving technology to support the need to design buildings that meet the operational and occupant requirements of living and working in a hotter climate. For example, this could include looking at design and construction methods used in other parts of the world such as the Far East.’

Education, education, education

The continuing success of the modular building industry is strongly dependent on the calibre of people who come to work in the sector in future. Paul says, ‘Over the next five years and beyond I hope to see more and more students at colleges and universities specialising in modular construction. It is increasingly being included in curricula on relevant courses and we have had a growing number of requests over the past couple of years from degree students who are basing their dissertations on the industry. I hope this trend continues to grow as it is these future industry leaders that will play an integral role in the future development and competitiveness of the modular building sector.

All these issues along with many others offer huge opportunities as well as challenges to the modular building industry. Never in its 45 year history has there been so much to address and consider. However, the future is certainly looking bright, with a growing number of organisations recognising the benefits of off-site construction.

Paul concluded: ‘The last five years have probably seen more change in the industry than in the previous 40 years put together. While new regulations, environmental factors and a whole range of other issues have created a lot of challenges, they have also provided a fantastic platform for the industry to grow and flourish. There is no sign of a slowdown in this pace of change and we at Portakabin are certainly looking forward to another 45 years packed full of new challenges and opportunities.’

To find out how Portakabin can help your organisation with its building needs, call 0845 200 1111 (sales), or 0845 355 0350 (Hire). Alternatively visit

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