A “Mod” History – Modular Construction Makes a Mark

Quick: what were the first modular buildings? If you immediately thought of the famous Sears Roebuck kit homes, you’d be in good company—even a few Internet sites credit the catalogue company with the first modular buildings. But when Sears began offering its build-a-home kits in 1908, modular construction was already more than half a century old.

Born in Britain (but Erected in Australia)

A modular building is defined as one that is fabricated in a factory and erected onsite. The first record of such a building appeared in theSouth Australian Record in 1837, in an advertisement for the Manning Portabel Cottage. The structure was design and built by carpenter  Henry Manning, who built the compnents in London and shipped them to Australia. Hundreds of Manning’s buildings were erected in Australia during the mid-1800s. His work was of such quality that one of his buildings, a Friends (Quaker) Meeting House, still stands in Adelaide.

The homes fabricated by the Sears Roebuck Company were the first modular buildings to be popular in America. The kit homes were targeted at people moving west, especially those lured to California for the Gold Rush. Buyers could choose from 44 styles of homes ranging in price from $700 to $4,000. Once purchased, each house would arrive by rail in a kit complete with all necessities— from nails to paint—and a detailed list of instructions. Sears sold over 75,000 houses between 1908 and 1940. Like Manning’s cottages, they were well built and many have stood the test of time. Over two hundred of the homes in Elgin, Illinois are Sears kit homes.

Modular to the Rescue

Though homes made up the majority of modular buildings until the mid-1950’s, there were some notable exceptions. The most famous  early modular building was a prefabricated hospital built in 1855 during the Crimean War. Its name came not only from its early innovative use of modular construction, but from its inspiration: Florence Nightingale. Despairing over the poor conditions at the hospital where she served, she wrote a letter to the London Times, asking for help. Five months later, a  modular hospital, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was shipped to the Crimea, where it reduced the death rate from 42% to 3.5%.

Modular buildings have provided shelter in other times of conflict, too. The U.S. used Quonset huts during World War II, while the British employed modular construction to build Nissen huts and Bellman Hangars. British citizens were housed in “pre-fabs” after losing their homes in the Blitz, and many WWII GI’s bought affordable modular homes when they returned home to the U.S.

Modular Gets Its Due

In the late 1950’s, the U.S. expanded the use of modular construction to schools, businesses and medical facilities. Architects like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright sang the praises of modular buildings. There a was a surge of interest in the mid-60s, buoyed in part by the Habitat ‘67 exhibit in Montreal, an ultra-modern modular housing development erected as part of Expo 67. But in spite of the attention, modular construction was never really well respected by most architects and builders—until now.

Now, Yale University’s new Pierson College dormitory is modular. McDonalds restaurants are going modular. Passenger cabins on the new Queen Mary 2 are modular. New York City has several new modular developments.

What changed? Modular construction itself has seen a few changes. Designers offer more customization options. Construction cranes with larger capacities have made it possible to erect heavier components. But the biggest change has been in perception. People now recognize the benefits of modular construction:

  • It’s speedy: a U.K. McDonalds contructed and opened a restarant in a record 13 hours.
  • It’s less exepnsive. Speed contributes to a cost-savings of 20-30% over onsite building construction.
  • It’s greener: Some modular buildings are constructed of “green” materials. Even those that aren’t waste less in the fabrication process,  and materials are more easily recycled since they haven’t been exposed to weather. Modular construction has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional construction and produces less noise and vehicular pollution onsite.

It seems as though modular is finally coming into its own as people recognize its worth, and designers begin to embrace the idea. “Certainly within the design industry, it (modular construction) didn’t have much cachet,” said David J. Burney, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction in a New York Times interview. “But there has been a sea change, and now there is much less of a distinction over whether a building has been assembled off-site or on-site.”


by Chris Polito, a professional in the modular construction industry.

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    • MBI

      Great article! It’s always good to know your roots. Modular construction is making a name for itself as greener, faster, smarter construction.

    • Agreed MBI! Even back in 1855, medical facilities saw the benefits of modular construction. Florence Nightingale is a lifesaver beyond measure.

    • BeamerSmith

      OK.. but why did they use a picture of Montreal’s Habitat but not speak of it?