Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."
The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.
- A new essay compares the power-up system in Mario Kart to feedback loops in real-life systems.
- Both try to provide targeted benefits to those who most need them.
- While games are simpler than reality, Mario's example makes the real-life cases easier to understand.
Poverty can be a self-sustaining cycle that might require an external influence to break it. A new paper published in Nature Sustainability and written by professor Andrew Bell of Boston University suggests that we could improve global anti-poverty and economic development systems by turning to an idea in a video game about a race car-driving Italian plumber.
A primer on Mario Kart
For those who have not played it, Mario Kart is a racing game starring Super Mario and other characters from the video game franchise that bears his name. Players race around tracks collecting power-ups that can directly help them, such as mushrooms that speed up their karts, or slow down other players, such as heat-seeking turtle shells that momentarily crash other karts.
The game is well known for having a mechanism known as "rubber-banding." Racers in the front of the pack get wimpy power-ups, like banana peels to slip up other karts, while those toward the back get stronger ones, like golden mushrooms that provide extra long speed boosts. The effect of this is that those in the back are pushed towards the center, and those in front don't get any boosts that would make catching them impossible.
If you're in last, you might get the help you need to make a last-minute break for the lead. If you're in first, you have to be on the lookout for these breakouts (and the ever-dreaded blue shells). The game remains competitive and fun.
Rubber-banding: A moral and economic lesson from Mario Kart
In the real world, we see rubber-banding used all the time. Welfare systems tend to provide more aid to those who need it than those who do not. Many of them are financed by progressive taxation, which is heavier on the well-off than the down-and-out. Some research suggests that these do work, as countries with lower levels of income inequality have higher social mobility levels.
It is a little more difficult to use rubber-banding in real life than in a video game, of course. While in the game, it is easy to decide who is doing well and who is not, things can be a little more muddled in reality. Furthermore, while those in a racing game are necessarily antagonistic to each other, real systems often strive to improve conditions for everybody or to reach common goals.
As Bell points out, rubber-banding can also be used to encourage sustainable, growth programs that help the poor other than welfare. They point out projects such as irrigation systems in Pakistan or Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) schemes in Malawi, which utilize positive feedback loops to both provide aid to the poor and promote stable systems that benefit everyone.
Rubber-banding feedback loops in different systems. Mario Kart (a), irrigation systems in Pakistan (b), and PES operations in Malawi (c) are shown. Links between one better-off (blue) and one worse-off (red) individual are highlighted. Feedback in Mario Kart (a), designed to balance the racers, imprAndrew Bell/ Nature Sustainability
In the Malawi case, farmers were paid to practice conservation agriculture to reduce the amount of sediment from their farms flowing into a river. This immediately benefits hydroelectric producers and their customers but also provides real benefits to farmers in the long run as their soil doesn't erode. By providing an incentive to the farmers to conserve the soil, a virtuous cycle of conservation, soil improvement, and improved yields can begin.
While this loop differs from the rubber-banding in Mario, the game's approach can help illustrate the benefits of rubber-banding in achieving a more equitable world.
The task now, as Bell says in his paper, is to look at problems that exist and find out "what the golden mushroom might be."
Introducing the Deep Space Food Challenge.
NASA has big plans for the coming decades. The agency's Artemis program has set its sights on returning to the Moon after an absence of nearly 50 years. Once there, the first woman and next man to walk the lunar surface will begin establishing a base camp, laying the foundation for the sustained exploration and economization of Earth's solar sibling. Then it's off to Mars.
But a journey to the ruddy planet, a distance of roughly 114 million miles, will require NASA to solve a myriad of logistical and engineering problems. Chief among them is the problem of food.
Although humans have maintained a continuous presence in space for 20 years aboard the International Space Station (ISS), food hasn't proven an issue as the station orbits a mere 220 miles above our terrestrial home. NASA and other space agencies can easily send astronauts care packages containing fresh fruit and veggies alongside shelf staples.
Mars-faring astronauts, however, will not have it so easy. The time and distance required for the expedition will make regular resupply infeasible. Astronauts will need to bring all their food with them, alongside the means of producing that food, and keep those supplies within the volume constraints of the spacecraft.
It's a problem with no obvious solution. That's why NASA is challenging entrepreneurs, college students, hobbyist investors, and you, if you're up for it, to help them devise one.
The way to an astronaut's heart
An image showing the different challenges a viable space-food system solution must overcome.
In a paper written for The Journal of Nutrition, Grace Douglas, NASA's lead scientist for advanced food technology at Johnson Space Center in Houston, outlined the necessities for food technologies in long-term space exploration. The most critical being, of course, survival.
"In the history of humankind, explorers set off to see what was over the horizon, and literally millions did not return because of food and nutrition failures," Douglas and her co-authors wrote.
The difficulty is that the processes we rely on to cook meals on Earth—such as boiling water, hot surfaces, and food preparation—work as they do because they are bound to an environment with gravity, atmosphere, atmospheric pressure, and even certain microbes. Spaceflight replaces that environment with one of microgravity, scarce resources, cabin pressure fluctuation, and unmitigated radiation, each adding their own variable to the cooking calculus.
To date, space food preparation has been limited to adding water or heating pre-packaged foods. When supplemented with fresh produce from Earth, the system works fine. But as mentioned, such a system would be infeasible for the more than two-year roundtrip to Mars and back.
Douglas and her coauthors conclude that any viable solution must provide safe, stable, palatable, and reliable food, while also overcoming environmental constraints, using minimal resources, and producing minimal waste. It would also need to provide all the micro- and macronutrients a spacefaring astronaut needs.
That alone is a tall order, but there is another wrinkle engineers must consider: the astronauts' mental wellbeing. Douglas and her co-authors note that it's a "common misperception" that astronauts will eat anything to complete the mission. While astronauts are high-performing individuals, they still require moments to revitalize their wellbeing against the stress, workload, and isolation inherent in such a mission.
Delicious, nutritious meals can provide such moments of mental reprieve, but they also must have variety. Even the tastiest meal in the finest of restaurants would become a mental chore if eaten day-in, day-out for two whole years. Substitute that with a tasteless, yet nutrient-dense food paste in the vacuum of space, and even the highest performers will develop a case of cosmic cabin fever.
One tough space nut to crack
To meet these challenges, NASA is crowdsourcing solutions through its Deep Space Food Challenge. In collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA is offering a $500,000 prize purse for solutions that add some flavor to extended spaceflight.
"NASA has knowledge and capabilities in this area, but we know that technologies and ideas exist outside of the agency," Douglas told UPI in an interview. "Raising awareness will help us reach people in a variety of disciplines that may hold the key to developing these new technologies."
The agency hopes the winning technologies will also bolster food production on Earth. If a system can offer tasty meals with minimal resources in space, the reasoning goes, then it may be modified for deployment to disaster areas and food-insecure regions, as well. The challenge is open to all U.S. citizens and closes on July 30, 2021. Information on the Canadian Space Agency's challenge is available on its website.
If food isn't your forte but you've got engineering chops, you can still help NASA solve the many other engineering and logistical problems facing the future of space exploration. Through the NASA Solve initiative, the agency is seeking ideas for breaking lunar ice, shrinking payload sizes, and developing new means of energy distribution.
And even if engineering isn't for you, you can still call your Congressional representative to request they support NASA and restore funding from budget cuts. We can all play a small, yet important, role in the future of space exploration and the advancing of scientific knowledge.
A recent study showed that monkeys can make logical choices when given an A or B scenario.
- For centuries, humans have wondered which cognitive abilities animals share with people.
- In a new study, researchers presented baboons with a "hidden-item" task designed to test their understanding of disjunctive syllogisms.
- The results showed that the baboons were not only successful in the task, but also displayed signs of confidence in their decision making.
You show a toddler a treat. Out of sight, you place it under one of two opaque cups. You lift up one cup, but there's no treat. You set that cup back on the table. The toddler makes a logical inference: It's under the other cup.
This two-cup hidden-item task is commonly used to measure cognitive abilities and development. Studies have shown that 2-year-olds and even some animals can reliably choose the right cup, suggesting they're capable of inferential reasoning. Specifically, they seem to be reasoning through a disjunctive syllogism: given A or B, if not A, then B.
Still, for toddlers and animals, it's hard to know whether they're actually using inferential reasoning. Perhaps they frame it like: maybe A and maybe B.
To find out whether monkeys actually have the brains to reason through a disjunctive syllogism, a recent study used an updated form of the hidden-item task. The results showed that monkeys can, suggesting that animals don't need verbal labels for logical concepts like "or" and "not" to make logical choices.
In the study, published in Psychological Science, researchers trained a set of baboons on the two-cup hidden-item task. Most of the baboons got the hang of it, successfully selecting the cup with the treat (a grape) above chance levels. Then the researchers added a twist, introducing a total of four cups (opaque, polyvinyl-chloride cylinders) instead of two.
Credit: Ferrigno et al.
The task was set up like this: A researcher and a baboon were separated by a cage. In front of the researcher was a wooden board, on top of which were four cylinders. The wooden board could be moved into the baboon's side of the cage, where the baboon could make a decision by pointing to a cylinder.
The researcher started by lifting all cylinders to reveal they're empty. She showed the monkey a grape. To prevent the baboon from seeing where the grape went, she'd place an occluder in front of two of the four cylinders, and then placed the grape in one of the two cylinders. The researcher then slid the occluder over to the remaining set of two cylinders and repeated this process.
So, one grape went into one of the two cylinders in the first set, another grape went into one of the two cylinders in the second set. For example: either cylinder 1 or 2 has a grape; either 3 or 4 has a grape.
The baboon was then presented with the board to make a decision. The baboon indicated its choice by pointing to one of the four cylinders. If the baboon guessed correctly, it got the treat. If it guessed incorrectly, the researcher revealed that the cylinder was empty. No matter the outcome, the researcher pulled away the wooden board for a few seconds, and then presented it again so the baboon could make a second choice.
Why set up the experiment like this? The baboons already seemed to have a solid grasp of the two-cup hidden-item task (given A or B, if not A, then B). But the four-cup task put their understanding of it to the test: If the baboons were indeed reasoning through a disjunctive syllogism, they would understand that there's a dependent relationship between each set of two cups.
Ferrigno et al.
In other words, they would understand that if cup 3 was empty, they should stay within that same set and point to cup 4, not switch their focus to the next set by pointing to cup 1 or 2.
The baboons seemed to understand this logic, according to the study results.
"Specifically, when subjects chose an empty location first, they were more likely to stay in the same baiting set and choose the other cylinder in the set (59% of trials, 271/463) than switch to the other set (41% of trials, 192/463)," the researchers wrote. "Conversely, when subjects chose a cylinder containing a grape for their first choice, they were more likely to switch to the other baiting set and choose either one of the two cylinders (66% of trials, 267/403) than stay in the same set (34% of trials, 136/403)."
Ferrigno et al.
What's more, the baboons often displayed confidence in their decisions: When they discovered that a cylinder within a set was empty, some of them began pointing at the remaining cylinder before the wooden board was even presented to them. The baboons "prepointed" correctly 79 percent of the time.
"Overall, our results show that nonhuman primates have the capacity to represent the abstract, combinatorial, or logical thought required to reason through a nonverbal disjunctive syllogism," the researchers wrote. "To date, this has been shown only in children of at least 3 years old and in a single African gray parrot."
But while the researchers said their results indicate that monkeys have a "higher level nonverbal cognition," further research is needed to determine exactly what that cognitive mechanism is.
"It is unknown how widespread this ability is at the population level, a question that should be addressed in future research. Furthermore, the precise mechanism by which animals reason through a nonverbal disjunctive syllogism requires detailed study."
Most of us carry a mother's voice in the neural patterns of our brain.
Beginning in the womb, a foetus's developing auditory pathways sense the sounds and vibrations of its mother. Soon after birth, a child can identify its mother's voice and will work to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices. A 2014 study of preterm infants showed that playing a recording of the mother's voice when babies sucked on a pacifier was enough to improve development of oral feeding skills and shorten their hospital stay. A mother's voice can soothe a child in stressful situations, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing levels of oxytocin, the social bonding hormone. Scientists have even traced the power of a mother's voice to infants' brains: a mother's voice activates the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left posterior temporal region more strongly than an unfamiliar voice, priming the infant for the specialised task of speech processing.
While it makes intuitive sense that a mother's voice has special power over infants and toddlers, what happens as children grow up? Daniel Abrams, a neurobiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, and his team of researchers set out to answer this question using functional MRI (fMRI), a neuroimaging technique that measures brain activity by detecting metabolic changes in blood flow. The researchers examined 24 children between the ages of seven and 12, who had normal IQs, had no development disorders, and were raised by their biological mothers. While in the MRI machine, these children listened to recordings of nonsense words spoken by their mothers or by other women. The researchers specifically chose nonsense words so as not to trigger brain circuits related to semantics. Regardless, the children were able to accurately identify their mother's voice more than 97 per cent of the time in less than one second.
But what actually happened when these older children heard their mother's voice? The team hypothesised that listening to her voice would produce more activity in the so-called 'voice-selective' brain regions, involved in recognising voice and processing speech, compared with when they heard unfamiliar female voices. But what the scientists found was even more remarkable. A mother's voice activated a wide range of brain structures including the amygdala, which regulates emotion, the nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex, which are part of a major reward circuit, and the fusiform face area, which processes visual face information. This pattern of brain activity can be likened to a neural fingerprint, where a mother's voice triggers specific activity in her child's brain.
The investigation didn't stop there. The team found that the more neural connection between these 'voice-selective' brain regions and those related to mood, reward and face processing, the more social communication abilities a child had. In other words, the neural fingerprint of a mother's voice within a child's brain can predict that child's ability to communicate in the social realm.
If that neural fingerprint is thought of as a biomarker in a child's brain, then how different does it look in children with disorders in social function, such as autism? And how does the neural fingerprint change in adolescence and into adulthood?
The answers to these questions remain unknown, but it is now scientifically proven that most of us carry a mother's voice in the neural patterns of our brain: bedtime stories, dinnertime conversation and the chatter we heard before birth identify us, uniquely, as surely as the fingerprint, enabling emotional development and social communication in childhood and, probably, through life.