October 22, 2009

Dutch architects reinvent modular construction

  • Modular buildings in the Netherlands are becoming seamless and sophisticated in design.


    Rob Ursem quipped, “There’s nothing more permanent than temporary housing,” as we drove through the tight streets of Amsterdam. Ursem, a third generation member of his family’s modular and construction company, Ursem Bouwgroep, has seen a quiet revolution in how the Dutch are addressing the need for quality, quickly constructed, temporary and permanent buildings.

    During the better part of the day, Ursem and I traversed the length of the Randstad — Holland’s belt of densely populated cities — visiting modular housing and school projects that are reinventing the way architects and builders work together.

    Standing on Leeghwaterstraat, a small lane at the edge of Delft’s Technical University, one can see the evolution of modular construction in a single glance. To the west is a 1950s vintage building that is uninspired, utilitarian and unapologetically modular in its construction; to the north is an ad-hoc, makeshift encampment of modular office units.

    But to the east, in a meadow at the campus’s green fringe, rise three new six-floor student housing buildings clad with distinctive black brick and a vegetated living wall. Appearing rooted to this site, these buildings give no clues as to their modular origin or their heroically quick schedule. Custom designed by Dutch architect Mecanoo Architecten, fabricated by Ursem Bouwgroep and developed by the Dutch housing developer DUWO, this 2008 project provides 186 critically needed housing units for international students at the university.

    Photos by David Walsh
    The seams of the modules that make up Amsterdam’s 4th High School were hidden by narrow wood planks on the facade.

    Leeghwaterstraat was a paradigm-shifter in terms of schedule, project lifespan and design possibilities for both the architect and developer. From the first pencil sketch to construction was only one year — an incredibly fast schedule considering that the jurisdictional reviews can easily consume most of the 12-month schedule. As building budgets decrease and the need for affordable housing increases, compressing the project schedule is one of the few variables that teams can affect.

    Despite the shortened design and construction schedule, DUWO challenged the team to produce a high-quality, long-lived building. The Delft student housing project was DUWO’s first permanent development to use modular construction and has since become an example for future projects.

    The fact that so much was achieved so quickly necessitated an early and iterative cooperation between builder and design team.

    Mecanoo senior architect Paul Ketelaars says, “Modular construction fit our purpose quite well,” but it was a challenge to coordinate all the building systems in the short time-frame.

    These systems — the steel structural frame, the modular units’ concrete floors and wood-framed walls, masonry and vegetated living wall — had to work together flawlessly. The number of architectural elements was intentionally held to a minimum to insure a sophisticated design, well-developed detailing and cost-effective construction. For example, having only one window assembly allowed the team “to get it right,” says Ketelaars.

    Unconstrained design

    Despite common misconceptions, modular construction leaves the architect surprisingly unconstrained. While there are some key dimensional parameters fixed by the realities of street widths and bridge clearances, Ursem Bouwgroep was able to build the project’s modular elements without deviating from the original Mecanoo design concept.

    For Delft Technical University in Amsterdam, three modular buildings were constructed to house 186 students. Black brick and vegetated living walls were applied to the buildings’ exteriors after this photo was taken.

    While most of the building was factory-built, some assemblies, such as the brick veneer and vegetated living walls, were site-constructed, giving the project a look of permanence. For this reason, Ursem Bouwgroep has both a conventional on-site contracting business in addition to the modular business, allowing the company to mix and match construction methods to best suit a project’s unique design.

    “It’s a business model that gives huge flexibility and a competitive advantage,” Rob Ursem says.

    Later that afternoon, I visited Ursem’s factory in North Holland where modular units bound for England and various provinces in the Netherlands were taking shape on the huge floor. Surprisingly, there were few employees for a company constructing 1,000 square meters of modular components per week; the number of machines easily outnumbered the workers in the vast factory.

    I couldn’t help thinking that today’s construction industry is at the same turning point that the automobile industry experienced in 1908. Except for building construction, most of the world’s major industries have long followed Henry Ford’s path to automated assembly lines, interchangeable parts and increased affordability.

    Unlike on-site conventional construction, modular manufacturing is not affected by fickle weather, a confined staging area, or a variable on-site labor pool. The controlled factory environment allows for automation of repetitive tasks and refinement of quality, while the production rate is significantly faster than for conventional on-site building methods.

    Modular-based revival

    As the day drew to a close, we returned to Amsterdam and visited the Westerpark neighborhood where Dutch designer HVDN Architecten and Ursem have completed two modular projects: Amsterdam’s 4th High School and Qubic, a university student housing complex. Formerly the western docklands along the Ij River, this area used to be known for its industrial decay and social problems. Today, new restaurants and housing are sprouting up in the reclaimed land.

    However, building a new community from the ground up has obvious logistical and infrastructure challenges. Attracting new residents without a local school seemed unlikely, but building a school in advance of the residents was unpractical. Like a pioneer species taking root in barren soil, modular construction offered a temporary but quality solution that catalyzed a new cycle of permanent building development.

    Qubic, a student housing project in Amsterdam, was designed for de-assembly within five years and re-assembly at a different location.

    Albert Herder, architect and cofounder of HVDN remarked, “(Modular) is quite useful for putting a place on the map. These buildings have generated a lot of interest for Westerpark, and Qubic is our most publicized project.”

    Qubic was also HVDN’s first modular project and, due to site zoning limitations, was designed for de-assembly within five years and re-assembly at a future location. In addition to being a re-locatable building, the developer, De Key - De Principaal, also wanted a good-looking building. HVDN achieved a sculptural and dynamic facade by designing a varied set of beveled, molded plastic facade panels punctuated with translucent color panels.

    From this first experience with modular construction, Herder learned to keep an open mind and became more excited about the possibilities after visiting the factory.

    Seamless finishes

    Modular manufacturing will continue to evolve in the near future to even higher levels of quality. Just as yesterday’s practical Walkman has developed into today’s sleek iPod, Herder foresees a similar transformation to a highly finished modular technology that is smooth and seamless.

    The keys to quality are found in both the manufacturing process and how well the designers detailed the components.

    Across the street at Amsterdam’s 4th High School, modular construction joints disappear behind a field of narrow wood slats at the building’s exterior. Precisely and deliberately spaced, the gaps between the slats create the facade’s visual pattern while concealing how the units attach to each other. At the building’s plinth and in the courtyard’s bright-colored aluminum facade panels, construction joints were de-emphasized by designing panels of varying widths that make the regularly spaced construction joints unperceivable.

    Ironically, the solution to erasing the modular joint was solved by adding more gaps and reveals. To facilitate the building’s reuse, HVDN carefully hid the attachment between the floors under a clever wood facade panel that flips up to provide access to the attachment between the floors.

    Through its composition and choice of materials, the building delivers a fresh and quality solution to a temporary need. Unlike the stale portable classrooms common in U.S. school yards, this modular school felt in no way provisional or like a second-class cousin of a traditional building.

    At Westerpark, I saw before me the modular cornerstones of a new neighborhood, but also a new, productive collaboration between architects and builders. As with the student housing in Delft, this cooperation is resulting in a new kind of modular building — seamless and sophisticated. This quiet, but significant, evolution is about more than just saving time or money. It’s about making great spaces for long-lasting communities.

    David Walsh, AIA LEED AP, is a senior associate at Mithun. He has more than 18 years of experience designing and managing a wide variety of housing, civic and educational projects. He serves on the board of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance, an organization dedicated to growing clean technology business sectors.

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