‘Modular’ – the dirty design word and what we mean by it

Seaview From Artis Home At Piha

The term 'modular' has gained popularity in the realm of architectural design and construction, particularly in the context of building houses.

However, it is also a word that has recently been owned by the pre-fab industry and is therefore often misunderstood and misused. Understanding the true essence of ‘modular’ and how it applies to the design and build of houses is essential to appreciate its significance in enhancing efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and design excellence.

At its core, modular design refers to an approach that involves creating standardised components or modules that can be combined and assembled in various configurations. It is simply a question of scale. A module can be a brick, or it can be an entire spatial ‘pod’. We have built in a modular fashion since we built our own homes. With the fashion of ‘pre-fab’ we have come to understand modular design to refer to much larger building components, when this doesn’t have to be the case.

Artis Homes Bedroom Triple 110m
An example of a 'modular' layout
Hele Kitchen Artis Home
Part of the kitchen module

At Artis we have created a number of spaces designed as individual ‘modules’, such as sleeping, living and bathing. These modules can be pushed and pulled within certain constraints to provide some design flexibility, while being able to control the costs. From a design perspective, we refer to modules as elements of space with various functions. They do come in specific dimensions appropriate to the function of a room (a bedroom, for instance might be 4.2m x 3m). However, these are not rigid and can be pushed or pulled within certain constraints that don’t add significant structural cost.

One of the most common misconceptions surrounding modular design is that it results in generic and cookie-cutter architecture.

While the use of standardised modules does impose certain constraints on the design, it also presents an opportunity for architects to work more efficiently within those constraints, for instance, it allows them to focus more on important things like the site, aspect and specific owner requests.

Moreover, modular design is not synonymous with a lack of variety. On the contrary, a well-designed system can allow for flexibility and customization. By combining different modules and arranging them in unique configurations, architects can create a wide array of design possibilities, tailoring each project to suit the specific needs and preferences of the clients.

When it comes to building on site, the assembly of modular components such as prefabricated floor panels or wall panels on-site requires less skilled labour and can be completed in a shorter time frame compared to traditional construction methods. This not only accelerates the overall construction process but also contributes to cost savings.

Ruaw Living Room
Built-in moments of joy

Artis uses a number of ‘modular’ construction components such as prefabricated panels and structural components, but does not prefabricate the whole house. In our experience, the savings of building under a roof are often more than offset by costs of transport, lifting and other site works required, for buildings over a certain size. This is why we mix the scale of material ‘modules’ to what we believe to be the most efficient combination – usually a mix of prefabricated panels and trusses with much smaller building components.

However, it is crucial to emphasise that while modular design and pre-fabrication can be advantageous, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Certain architectural projects may not benefit from modular design due to their client’s unique requirements or site-specific constraints. Architects must carefully assess each project’s needs and determine whether a modular approach is suitable.

In conclusion, modular is a very broad term, but is an efficient and pragmatic concept that has been embraced by the pre-fabrication industry for its potential to improve cost-effectiveness and streamline construction processes. Despite misconceptions, modular design and build does not equate to sacrificing good design. On the contrary, it encourages creative problem-solving within specific constraints and enables architects to design spaces that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional. At Artis, we use modular design techniques to make the design process more efficient while still enabling an element of customisation. All our construction is modular, it is simply a mix of different sizes of modular components and materials that we believe together offer the best compromise between cost-effectiveness and good design.