Modular Vs. Prefab Construction: 5 Key Differences

Modular Home

All modular buildings are prefabricated buildings. Yet not all prefab structures are modular structures. The distinction between modular versus prefab construction can often get confusing. Do you know the difference? 

If not, don't worry. It’s not uncommon to confuse these terms and their mode of construction. So, let's discuss the differences.

There are three primary categories of prefabricated structures. Modular, panel-built, and manufactured. Furthermore, there are three fundamental principles of modular construction:

  • Design team engagement
  • Factory precision
  • Enhanced collaboration

These principles carry over to the other forms of prefab construction. Since developers do not build these structures on-site, design teams, manufacturers, and contractors have an easier time ensuring the success of these projects.

Before discussing the key differences between modular and other prefab buildings, let's look at their various types of construction.

Key Takeaways:

  • Modular and prefab buildings are everywhere. Some are more noticeable than others. They range from office buildings, apartment complexes, commercial buildings, and portable structures.
  • Manufacturers construct each modular in the factory and transport that section to the construction site. Panels of some prefab buildings get transported and assembled on-site in segments.
  • Some prefab buildings, like manufactured homes, are not subjected to building codes the way modular homes are. HUD standards still apply to each of these types of construction.
  • Stability, durability, value, and style are some of the most significant differences in modular versus prefab construction. Modular construction can have an appearance similar to a shipping container. Other prefabs do not always have that look.

Types of Prefab and Modular Construction

There are almost an endless number of buildings that contractors develop into modular and prefabricated structures. Real estate experts consider modular units to be better than standard prefabs

The reason for this is that prefab buildings are generally temporary structures assembled from panels and are portable. Schools use these prefabs as temporary classrooms, or corporations use them for additional office spaces. 

Infograph of the construction of a prefab building versus a modular structure

Prefabs have steel-framed bodies, and contractors assemble them into easy-to-move buildings. In contrast, modular construction entails constructing the structure for permanent placement onto a foundation. Below are the most common modular and prefab buildings:

  • Office buildings
  • Homes and housing
  • Retail and commercial buildings
  • Storage buildings
  • School buildings
  • Apartment buildings, townhomes, hotels, and villas
  • Portable workforce housing units
  • Construction trailer rentals
  • Portable administrative offices
  • Portable medical labs

5 Key Differences Between Modular and Prefab Construction  

Traditional stick-built construction accounts for 39% of carbon emissions, and roughly 40% of these materials get dumped in landfills. On the other hand, modular and prefab structures are more eco-friendly and use less energy to construct and maintain. 

Now, let's review some of the differences between these two structures so you can determine which building suits your project best.

1. Type of Pre-Built Pieces

The types of pre-built panels and segments are the primary difference between these buildings. Manufacturers construct each modular in the factory. These modules then get transported to the construction site. 

Contractors assemble prefab panels or segments on-site. Often, contractors transport these panels in smaller segments and assemble the pieces on-site. While the manufacturer builds these sections in a factory, they do not begin to take shape until the contractor constructs them on-site.  

2. Building Codes  

Manufactured homes and other prefabs do not demand the building code requirements of modular construction. They will, however,  still need to meet HUD standards. Modular buildings must pass the exact building codes of stick-built structures.

3. Stability and Durability   

Many prefab buildings lack the stability and longevity that modular structures offer. They tend to develop more problems and do not remain as energy efficient. 

While they are better for the environment during development and assembly, it is not as eco-friendly to live or work in these prefab buildings. Modular construction is the sturdiest option. 

Modular buildings also last longer and can withstand more abuse from the elements. For example, a modular structure can withstand winds up to 180 mph. That is more than prefab homes and even some stick-built construction projects.

The reason for this is the consistency offered by factory construction. Fewer variables impact the development of these buildings, like materials that sit outside and deteriorate during on-site construction.

4. Overall Value  

The realty market does not consider manufactured homes and other prefab buildings as real estate. These structures fall into the category of personal property, the same as your vehicle. They depreciate more rapidly. That is not the same for modular buildings.

Bar graph of the number of modular houses built from 1992 to 2019

For that reason, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, modular home construction was at an all-time high. That was before the crash of the housing market in 2008. Over the last few years, there has once again been a steady climb in the number of modular houses built. 

Experts agree the need for affordable housing will help the modular and prefab home industry regain market growth in the coming years. According to these experts, the CAGR of modular construction will reach 12% or more by 2026. 

5. Appearance and Style    

Modular buildings provide more design and style freedom than traditional prefab construction. While modulars initially look like shipping containers, you can disguise them to look nearly identical to frame-built structures. 

One thing that all prefab buildings share regarding appearance and style is the upgrade to modern fixtures and fittings. You can incorporate trendy, sleek elements, whether they are for residential or commercial applications.

Modular or Prefab: Where to Get the Bathroom Fixtures You Need   

Whether the structure you design is modular or another form of prefab construction, the fixtures inside should be as quality as the construction. One key feature of prefab structures is that they are sustainable. They conserve natural resources more efficiently than stick-built construction projects. That's why you should install bathroom fixtures that are durable and sustainable in these buildings. 

At Geberit, we offer environmentally responsible products for bathrooms in all types of structures. We offer fixtures with a sleek and modern look, from wall-hung toilets to dual flush actuators and concealed cisterns.

If you have a modular or standard prefab construction project, contact us today to see how we can help give your structure a more sustainable appeal.