Offsite construction - Modular buildings – asset or liability in public healthcare?

A new survey has revealed the reasons why healthcare organisations may favour, or avoid, using modular construction methods.

Modular construction has a mixed reputation in the healthcare sector.

Whether strictly interim or permanent, luxury or low-cost; modular buildings are increasingly being used by NHS trusts as an apt response to their evolving demands.

But can they provide a long-term answer to the NHS’s need for spaces that work for both patients and the staff treating them?

And, if the answer is ‘yes’, could a framework be created for those organisations opting for these solutions?

The survey

Multi-disciplinary consultancy, ETL, along with its partner, MJ Medical, recently quizzed more than 50 clinicians, estates professionals, project and programme managers, designers, healthcare planners, and consultants.  

They were asked how far can modular buildings:

  • compromise or complement models of care.
  • enable the workforce to become more efficient.
  • support the adoption of new technology and other innovations.
  • improve the patient experience
  • respond to change.

And the feedback suggests there are various potential benefits of modular prefabricated buildings in healthcare, including decreased cost, reduced building timescales, reduced on-site disturbances resulting from greater off-site construction, and environmental benefits.

Overstaying their welcome?

What is less clear, however, is whether there are any significant benefits or limitations to modular prefabricated buildings compared to conventional buildings in terms of the patients and workforce who use these facilities.

Kelsey Price, healthcare planner at ETL, comments: “Interestingly, modular healthcare buildings seem to overstay their proposed lifetime, with 54% of respondents disagreeing, or strongly disagreeing, that they are only used for the planned time period.

“In contrast, the majority agreed, or strongly agreed, that they support technological advances, changing models of care, and masterplanning programmes and are compatible with long-term site strategies.”

Survey question: “If timescale and cost constraints could be relaxed, would you still opt for a modular solution?”

There was an evenly-mixed response: Respondents voting ‘yes’ gave reasons ranging from long-term flexibility and durability and the future use of the building;  the ability to be moved and re-purposed to meet operational, clinical and patient requirements; reduced onsite disruption and the location.

Interestingly, it was stated that if time and cost constraints were relaxed, this would improve the quality of modular buildings, making them increasingly favourable.

Conversely, those still against opting for a modular solution cited noise and deterioration issues; looking ‘out-of-place’; and potential layout, flexibility and integration constraints.

What particularly stood out was the comment that the ‘sales pitch is better than reality’, and how modular buildings should only ever be used in response to disasters.

Offices, followed by screening centres and then pharmacies were voted as most suited to modular design.

The areas least supported by modular solutions were deemed to be Critical care, followed by birthing units and then emergency departments were cited as least suitable.

Notably, 10% of respondents stated that none of the health facilities from a comprehensive list were suited to a modular design.

Price said: “Good design can enable today’s modular buildings to continue to be of benefit for as long as conventional buildings. However, there are still questions to be answered around when they are an optimal solution to the rapidly-deteriorating NHS estate and increasing facility demands, and how design can be more closely aligned to bringing benefits to patients and the workforce.

Next steps

“We will now be carrying out a second phase of research on this project and want to hear from those in healthcare who have a modular building.”

Interested participants can contact Price 0203 976 3000 or email

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