We all know how Lego pieces can be assembled and connected in many ways to construct objects such as buildings, cars, roads and other complicated structures.
The same philosophy, well almost, is applied to modular construction, which is a process in which a building is constructed off-site, using the same materials and designing to the same codes and standards as conventionally built structures — but in less than half the time.
MEP Middle East witnessed an off-site construction facility last month where building modules are developed. Since the launch of the 16ha KEF Infra One Industrial Park, in India, KEF Infra has witnessed robust growth in its order book. The industrial park currently has a manufacturing capacity of more than 500,000m2 per annum.
Faizal E Kottikollon, founder and chairman of KEF Infra and UAE-based KEF Holdings, says: “In a short span of three years, KEF Infra has demonstrated our ability to bring world-class proficiency in design, engineering, manufacturing, assembly, and project management, all under roof, thereby, transforming the traditional construction industry by significantly reducing costs and increasing efficiencies.”
Kottikollon says that the reason why modular engineering is not yet very popular is because people are unwilling to accept change. “People are happy to remain with what they know,” he says. “And this is why it has not really gone leaps and bounds into the market because of a certain disintegration of engineering. In conventional projects, you will have around 10 consultants; fire and safety, electrical, and air conditioning are all done by different people. This is what we are eliminating. We use the Autodesk design software Revit, which allows us to do architectural, structural, and MEP designs. We then modularise it.”
Prefabricated apartments are designed to be literally stacked one on top of the other. “Like Lego,” says Kottikollon. Furthermore, prefabricated MEP is all about planning and collaboration; the sooner the stakeholders are involved, the more opportunities there will be to save space and time during construction.
Prefabrication out of philanthropy
Talking about how KEF Infra came to fruition, Kottikollon says that this was because of his interest in philanthropy. His journey began in 1995 with the opening of Al Ahamadi General Trading in Ajman, following which the business launched a valve trading company. He then created Emirates Techno Casting, which is an integrated facility incorporating engineering and design labs. After selling his valve manufacturing business to Tyco International for $400m in 2012, Kottikollon’s passion for philanthropy led him to India. “My philanthropy work started in Calicut, India, for government schools,” he says. “We worked on a study with Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calicut, to understand what were the challenges faced in the public education system. We assumed that some of the issues might be teachers not being up to the mark, lack of motivation among students, etc. However, the study revealed that rundown infrastructures in government schools, such as lack of toilets and dilapidated buildings was the root cause. This surprised me and I wondered why no one was addressing the issue. That’s when off-site manufacturing came into our mind. Back then, we rebuilt an entire school in 95 days!”
Kottikollon says that KEF Infra has constructed around 68 government schools across India.
At KEF Infra One Park, automation and data exchange are integrated with manufacturing technologies, where a network of smart factories are driven by human enterprise and cyber physical systems. Technology creates products that are durable and sustainable, which pioneers speed, efficiency and precision.
Kottikollon adds: “This technology, provides a much longer life to the building because it is produced with steam curing, and on the site there is water curing. The strength of prefabricated concrete is much higher than conventional concrete. And also, it is done using Building Information Modelling (BIM). That means, with every element going into the building, we know the life of that particular product in the system. So, maintenance becomes much easier. And everything is tracked today with technology.”
The maintenance cost will be nil, says Kottikollon. He also says that using a graphic concrete technology, the requirement for painting buildings is eliminated.
Kottikollon says: “All the steel is produced using robots. It’s all automatically done from the design stage directly; the interface is with machines. This is German technology. All welding is done using robots.”
Material waste is recognised as a major dilemma in the construction industry and has important implications. The construction industry has been reported to be generating unimaginable levels of material waste. This includes building materials such as insulation, nails, electrical wiring, shingle and roofing as well as waste originating from site preparation such as dredging materials, tree stumps and rubble. Construction waste may also contain lead, asbestos and other hazardous substances.
With modular construction as an affordable and efficient alternative to traditional construction, there is now a sustainable option for keeping tonnes of waste out of our nation’s landfills with each new build. Kottikollon says: “There is only 2% wastage with offsite construction as opposed to 12% wastage in the traditional method. You are getting a better product with less maintenance. Cost is less.
“The largest polluting industry is the construction sector. There is a lot of construction debris. No one wants to change, and everyone wants to complain.
“Additionally, today builders have become contractors, and contractors and subcontractors are not communicating. And because of cost over-run, everything is passed on to the client. In Delhi, India, homes have not been delivered, but developers have collected all the money. Modular construction eliminates corruption because the construction industry is the most corrupt industry in the country [India]. There are too many hands are involved in building something, and nothing is complete.”
Better quality and skilled labour
Will conventional construction no longer be the norm in the future?
Kottikollon says that is unlikely; however, there is a lack of skilled manpower. He says: “The quality is becoming poor. Previously, our carpenters and masons were very skilled. Today, the subcontracting system has spoiled the quality. So, if today you get a mason, tomorrow that mason will go somewhere else. A new mason will replace him but he will be unskilled. It does not really help.
“We’re bringing skilled manpower into the industry. This ifits the ‘Make in India’ vision. For example, in this facility, we have 1,168 employees. Out of which, 220 people are from villages, but they are trained to operate computers. And this is what India needs. We need to bring them and give them the skills. The intensity and the scale of growth is much higher in a factory environment.”
Additionally, he says, off-site prefabrication can reduce large labour requirements. The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) in the UK found that the use prefabricated MEP modules results in 34% to 90% reduction in installation labour.
The Middle East
Kottikollon says the company will soon be exporting modules to the Middle East. He says: “What we are looking at is that the core plant will be here. Whatever we cannot export, which means the precast components, we can tie up with Bahrain precast companies. All the wood elements, furniture and aluminium, which is cheaper to take from here and containerise, will be shipped. We are more of a design and build company. We will be partnering with each country’s resources.
“I have a credible track record. Many people are interested. But we are cautious with whom we want to partner. We have the mission of social entrepreneurship. The idea is to go public so that people can be part of this journey. We are weighing a lot of options, as we speak. We are more excited about the impact we are creating, but, we have a lot of work to do in bringing this technology to the next level.”
The Asia-Pacific region dominates the modular construction market. It accounted for the largest market share of 46.3% in 2016.
China is one of the leading markets in the Asia-Pacific region, whereas North America is the second largest region for the modular construction market.
The Middle East is one of the smallest markets and only accounts for less than 4% of the global market, which indicates that there is still a long way to for this region.
However, with mega events coming up such as Expo 2020 and the urgency to hit the timelines in construction, modular engineering is an obvious way forward.