The future of megaprojects
What is Modularity?
Put simply, modularity is the process of “dividing a product or system into modules that are interchangeable”. When we think of modular construction in particular, the image conjured up is likely of housing built en masse and shipped directly to neighbourhoods. However, when we are talking about megaprojects, as usual, we need to think a little bit bigger.
Firstly, the way that we think about modularity is important. Rather than being understood as breaking down previously monolithic infrastructure into ad-hoc chunks, it should be thought of as building up from standardised modules in order to “embed resilience to face the uncertainty and dynamism” of a project’s lifecycle. Within a megaproject, this could mean a number of things such as building standardised elements (such as windows) off-site and bringing them in or constructing the entire project “module by module“, making it operational at each microstage.
By building with a modular mentality, project teams reduce time spent on design and procurement, while ensuring that benefits are delivered much faster. A great example of this is Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory. Construction was undertaken in discrete phases, where each constructed module could immediately begin manufacturing batteries as soon as it was completed, without having to wait for the entire project to be complete. In fact, while the factory has been “30% complete” for the past 3 years, it has still produced over 1 million batteries. The benefits of a modular approach are clear.
Bent Flyvbjerg, Chairman of Oxford Global Projects, argues that after researching and consulting on megaprojects for over 30 years, he has found that the two factors which determine whether a project will succeed or fail are “replicable modularity in design and speed in iteration”. According to Flyvbjerg, “if a project can be delivered fast and in a modular manner…it is likely to succeed”.
While we agree with Flyvbjerg’s assessment that the particular project type is likely to impact whether modularity is possible (for example, wind power is more amenable to modularity than high speed rail), we wanted to compare two metro projects where one implemented a modular approach and the other did not to really appreciate the importance of modularity.
In our last Sustainable Megaprojects event, Crossrail Ltd’s CEO, Mark Wild, shared insights into the successful delivery of megaprojects. Perhaps one of the most valuable was his emphasis on design modularity. According to Mark, “there was hardly any modularity” on the Crossrail project, instead “almost all of Crossrail has been built in situ, tested in situ, commissioned and integrated in situ”. The result was “too much latitutde for tier 1 and tier 2 contractors to have different pumps, different CCTV, different protocols etc”. Reflecting back on this, he argues that “for everyone at the beginning of a programme, design modularity is key”.
To take a specific example, Mark explained that the doors of the underground system could have been made modular but the opportunity was missed. As a consequence, “we created an environment where the architects could create bespoke holes which we would then go and buy doors for. We had thousands of differently shaped doors”. If he could re-do this, he argues that “we should say ‘we will have 10 types of doors and architects can make the station look beautiful around our 10 standard modular doors’. We should have had that plug-and-play element”.
As the example of Crossrail demonstrates, the construction of a subway system is usually seen as naturally slow and highly customised. However, in 1995, Madrid Metro challenged this conventional wisdom.
Madrid Metro’s President, Manuel Melis, avoided the kinds of signature architecture that have become famous in cities like Moscow and London. Instead, “his stations would each follow the same modular design and use proven cut-and-cover construction methods”. This approach allowed for “replication and learning from station to station” as construction progressed.
Melis’ modular methodology led to huge success. In Melis’ own words, “we completed everything on time and within budget. In fact, we could have finished six months earlier because we were too conservative with our planning”. While he notes how important his excellent project teams were to achieving this, his focus on modularity is clear.
Make it Modular
Our Executive Chairman, Dr Atif Ansar, has recently published a paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy with Bent Flyvbjerg as co-author in which they argue that a modular, repeatable approach is the only way we are going to solve the increasingly big problems faced by humanity. We recommend reading their research for some real inspiration to make megaprojects modular.
At Foresight Works, we are excited to see the growth in adoption of these modular approaches in data centre and wind projects around the world. If you want to keep up to date with how the trend towards modularity sign up to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn.
Content Lead at Foresight Works
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