Modular vs. Stick Built and A Case for the Future of Construction

Do you remember the first time you heard about modular construction? Do you recall your initial reaction? Did you perhaps associate it with being cheap, low-quality, poorly insulated, or even unattractive? Did the image of a double-wide trailer come to mind?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re not alone. Negative stigmas surrounding modular construction are pervasive, persisting in the minds of many, except those within the industry itself.

These deeply held misconceptions and stigmas have contributed significantly to modular construction’s modest market share of only 5.5% in 2021, despite its numerous advantages: speed, environmental friendliness, versatility, and high quality.

Aligned with these misconceptions, modular construction is often overlooked as an alternative or substitute for traditional stick-built construction. However, many fail to recognize that modular construction can yield results comparable to, and in many cases, superior to stick-built methods. This is because modular construction has evolved from stick-built practices to meet the historical need for faster, more efficient, predictable, and weather-resistant construction. 

Types of Modular Construction

There are three types of modular construction as outlined by the Modular Building Institute and Sustainable Modular Management: 

  1. Permanent Modular ConstructionAn innovative, sustainable construction delivery method that utilizes offsite, lean manufacturing techniques to prefabricate single or multi-story whole building solutions into deliverable module sections. 
  2. Relocatable BuildingsPartially or completely assembled buildings that comply with applicable codes or state regulations and are constructed in a building manufacturing facility using a modular construction process.
  3. Semi-Permanent Buildings that could be relocated without significant additional costs, designed to allow minimal additional expenses for removal and reinstallation, particularly in managing mateline connections. These buildings are installed on a permanent-style stem wall foundation to allow for flush-to-grade entry, meeting ADA access requirements, and additional exterior architectural elements are applied to give them a sense of permanence.  

It’s important to note that modular construction is not the same as “manufactured” – such as manufactured homes that most are familiar with. This is where many of the previously stated stigmas come from.

A Construction Method Dating Back to Ancient Rome 

Many people believe that modular construction is a modern innovation, but it’s a construction method that dates back to ancient Rome. We’ve all heard the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but it was built in less days than it could have taken because the Romans employed modular construction.  

In ancient Rome, which was a walled city, forts similar to those found along the Great Wall of China were strategically placed. These forts typically comprised four gates, a central ceremonial area, baths, and a kitchen. Larger, more permanent forts boasted additional features such as central headquarters, chapels for storing sacred weapons, rows of slate-roofed barracks, storage granaries, cookhouses, and latrines with running water, capable of accommodating up to 20 men.

To construct these forts, Roman armies utilized prefabricated wall sections containing dovetail and cross-halving joints, allowing for quick assembly on-site, enabling instant defense.

Fast forward to the 1600s, and historical records mention a disassembled wood paneled fishing house shipped from England to Massachusetts, USA. This modular building was used to accommodate fishermen who had recently arrived in America, relying on trusted English construction methods. 

The Portable Colonial Cottage 

However, the first modular building officially on record was constructed by Henry Manning in the 1800s, as recounted in Gilbert Herbert’s journal article for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, titledThe Portable Colonial Cottage“. Manning’s son was part of a small group of settlers from Britain who sought to establish a new home in Western Australia along the banks of the Swan River. The harsh environment and weather conditions rendered tents and flimsy huts, built from local materials, inadequate for survival. Faced with this challenge, Manning devised a solution: he constructed a small, well-built wooden house in sections in England, which was then packed for export and effortlessly assembled on-site. 

The practicality and durability of Manning’s modular construction caught on among other settlers and locals, providing essential protection against the elements and theft. These wooden houses thrived in the harsh environment precisely because they were not built in it. Their construction materials were of higher quality than locally sourced materials, and the construction environment in England was more predictable and temperate compared to the conditions in Western Australia.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean, modular construction saw high demand as the United States expanded westward. During the gold rush of 1849, over 500 preassembled homes were shipped from factories in New York to California.

The First Modular Hospital 

However, modular construction wasn’t solely focused on housing in the 1800s. Entire commercial modular buildings were also being constructed.

Renowned architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a fully modular hospital during the height of the Crimean War in 1855, known as the Renkioi Hospital. This hospital was designed, constructed, and shipped within five months, providing a timely medical care facility during the conflict.”

The Sears Modern Home Program 

Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. began selling prefabricated houses through its Sears Modern Home Program, aimed at the middle class and WWI veterans. Customers could choose from one of the 400 house plans available in their catalog and receive the materials in easy-to-construct sections. All that was required was land to place it on and labor to assemble it. Once purchased from the catalog, the building materials were shipped by train and could be ready for occupancy in as little as 90 days.  

The Sears Modern Home Program was immensely popular and played a significant role in shaping American neighborhoods as we know them today. 

Advantages of Modular Construction

The advantages and efficiencies of modular construction that appeal to developers, general contractors, and builders can be summed up in three words: greener, faster, and smarter.  

The Modular Building Institute outlines the main points around these three advantages best:  

  • Greener: The factory-controlled process generates less waste, creates fewer site disturbances and allows for tighter construction. 
  • Faster: Construction of modular buildings occurs simultaneously with site work, allowing projects to be completed in half the time of traditional construction. 
  • Smarter: Modular buildings are built with the same materials and to the same building codes and architectural specifications as traditional construction. Once assembled, they are virtually indistinguishable from their site-built counterparts. 

With modular construction, site development and foundation work happen simultaneously with the construction of the building at the factory, making it 30%-50% faster than traditional stick-built construction, as shown in the image above.

But that’s just the start of a very long list of advantages that have brought the construction industry back to modular construction time and time again throughout history.


Flexibility in modular concept and speed of design are two major additional advantages of modular construction. When you work with a modular-minded architect, there’s a lot you can do with modular construction. Additionally, the speed of design for a modular building frequently gets overlooked. When constructing a stick-built structure, the plans tend to take a year or more, while plans for a modular building take a matter of months.

The Power in Repeatability

The repeatability of modular construction is also a significant advantage. Once the engineering is completed, a building can be repeated infinitely. Major developers have taken to modular construction for this exact reason. There is value in repeatability, and the efficiency it creates is the intersection in which developers find significant cost savings. The efficiency in repeatability is marked by the site team not being nearly as busy, by focusing only on putting things together when the modular units arrive on site.

Structurally Sound

Because modular construction happens offsite, another notable benefit of modular buildings is that they are more structurally sound. They are designed and engineered to withstand transport to the site, commonly along highways traveling upwards of 60 miles per hour, and sealed to be weathertight when it arrives on site to protect everyone before finishes are completed.

Modular Construction – A First Responder of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

The advantages of modular construction became evidently clear during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Over the past few years, Sustainable Modular Management saw an uptick in the number of both relocatable and permanent health clinics and medical centers they were providing. Their modular construction solutions made it possible for these facilities to be delivered to a site and ready for use in as little as three days or built in less than two months and be fully operational. The ability to provide timely solutions empowered healthcare facilities and their workers to provide the testing and care people needed with the extra space to do so. In fact, modular building solutions offered space for care in rural and remote places where there wasn’t any before.

Another symptom of the COVID-19 Pandemic was the soaring costs of building materials while the need for housing was at an all-time high. People relocated and exercised their newfound location freedom due to the uptick in remote work. In Canada, Taylor witnessed developers being drawn to modular construction to meet the demands of the housing market with speed and avoid the high costs of materials as best they could.

Now, because there is such a demand for housing, many states, provinces, and countries are incentivizing the use of modular construction because of its speed, offering initiatives and grants for housing built within certain timelines.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has proven that efficiency and speed are modular construction’s top two benefits and the reasons why developers and general contractors choose modular construction over stick-built – especially during unpredictable and tumultuous times.

Modular Construction isn’t for Everyone – But Neither is Stick-Built Construction

To be fair, there are drawbacks to modular construction, just as there are drawbacks to stick-built construction. Modular construction is an ideal option for buildings with lots of repeated design features, such as apartments, hotel rooms, office buildings, and more. Factories can efficiently create many identical (or extremely similar) units and deliver them in a timely manner.

However, if time is not of the essence and achieving a truly unique look is the top priority, stick-built construction might be the better option. The key benefits of stick-built construction are twofold: it allows for truly unique structures, and it is a well-understood, deeply ingrained process with long-established roles for stakeholders and workers.

However, there are some drawbacks to stick-built construction that John also points out, including interrupted construction due to weather, change orders, and unforeseen site issues resulting in longer completion times. Most importantly, these drawbacks pose a far greater risk for cost overruns.

The modular construction industry’s main selling point is that it can seamlessly emulate a stick-built building, but historically speaking, modular construction was born out of a need for a better way to build. So, why does the practice of modular construction tout its ability to hide in the shadows of what it’s trying to be better than when it has always been the future of construction?

The Future of Construction

There are a lot of things modular construction can do that stick-built construction can’t. Climate change, a continued housing crisis, and even future pandemics offer an opportunity for modular construction to show the world what it’s made of. It might be our only hope for sustainable building practices as land becomes scarcer and efforts to protect the planet become amplified.

Two particular aspects of modular construction that have the power to become highly attractive to environmentally conscious end-users are the smaller footprint and greener practices of modular construction. There are a few companies already in the business of appealing to environmentally conscious end-users. Pacific Mobile’s SAGE Classroom and SAGE Campus are alternative, healthier learning environments that are resource-efficient and environmentally safe for inhabitants and the Earth.

Here are a few of the features and benefits that make Pacific Mobile Structures’ SAGE line the latest thinking in healthy learning environments with the best in green building practices:

  • Improved HVAC systems incorporate energy recovery ventilation for healthier air, noise reduction, and energy conservation.
  • More and bigger windows increase natural daylight and stimulate learning, while conserving electricity.
  • Steel floor structures afford greater portability and longevity.
  • Environmentally safe building materials don’t release toxins into the air.

This future of construction and design is already welcomed with open arms by millennials and now, Gen-Zers. These generations have embraced “van life” and tiny home living—simultaneously out of both necessity and out of a more environmentally mindful and conscientious lifestyle. These next generations could drive the future of construction towards modular.

Future Nostalgia

We hold the places where we live, work, learn, and gather near and dear to our hearts. It’s where we connect and create memories together, each of us living in our own experience and attaching that experience to the place it was experienced. When we look ahead and imagine futuristic versions of those places, many of us yearn for what we know or knew and become nostalgic for it to connect us with our experiences and memories.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that we’ll always have more standardized, traditional housing built by both modular and stick-built construction. City standards and requirements, HOAs, and people who simply just want to “fit in” will maintain it for the foreseeable future. However, if the modular construction industry can become curators of “future nostalgia,” it might just be what generations years from now long for.

Is Modular Construction Right for Your Project?

Every project is unique, and at the end of the day, only those closest to it know the project best. Modular construction might be the best option to get the job done, or it might not be. For developers, general contractors, builders, and even end-users to make the best decision for their project, the modular construction industry must do its part in helping them make the most informed decision. As an industry, we want more of the construction pie but also what’s best for each project.

The Next Chapter in the History of Modular Construction

I feel very fortunate to be part of this industry for so many years,” says Garth Haakenson, President, and CEO of Pacific Mobile Structures. “With the economic challenges we all face in material and labor costs and the environmental goals of reducing waste and energy use, modular construction has always been a very efficient method to build. The design and quality improvements over the years are something we all take a lot of pride in.”

“These past two years dealing with spiraling inflation and supply chain disruptions have forced many people to reevaluate how best to construct their project. Many people have turned toward modular construction. Given the advancements with manufacturing technologies such as robotics, CNC machining, and the application of Lean processes, I think we’ll only continue to see more of that,” says Tom Coyle, Executive Vice President of Construction at Pacific Mobile Structures.

Throughout key moments in history, modular construction has always played a subtle but critical role. This moment in history is no different. We live in a time when the cost of living and the demand for housing are skyrocketing on the backdrop of an ever-looming climate crisis. When you think about it, the residential housing industry really hasn’t had any huge disrupters enter the space and truly change how we think about where we live. Additionally, performing commercial construction offsite is still not a widely accepted concept even though it improves efficiency, lowers costs, and results in less waste. The construction industry is where innovation is needed the most if we are going to make strides to solve the affordable housing crisis and reduce our impact on the planet for good.

This next chapter in the history of modular construction must be one in which end-users are educated and this construction method, dating back to Ancient Rome, finally steps out of the shadows to capture a larger share of a market in dire need of creativity, innovation, and a better way to build.

Now, what comes to mind when you hear the words “modular construction”?