Streamlining Multi-Family Construction: The Efficiency of Standardized Modular Housing

Randall Thompson

10 min read


Volumetric Building Companies is pleased to feature this guest article written by Randall Thompson, a Senior Pre-construction Manager with NibbiPrefab, a division of Nibbi Brothers General Contractors. At VBC we know it takes many stakeholders to support a thriving modular industry. We're excited to use our platform to highlight experts and further educate the world about the benefits of modular construction.


First, some perspective.... 


Ford Motor Company would not have succeeded in bringing the automobile to the masses if Henry Ford had set out to offer customized Model-Ts to his customers.  Flashing forward to over a century later, the vast majority of the population is not driving a hand-built, custom automobile.  No, we are driving a production vehicle with a relatively standard range of customer-centric options, and many are quite content with that.  


So why is it that we repeatedly attempt to deliver the "Rolls Royce" of housing to a funding-constrained market starved of supply? 


The Case for Standardization 


The affordable housing industry’s need for and interest in volumetric modular construction has never been greater.  It has become increasingly less practical to develop, design and build an entirely bespoke product for many housing projects.  Some projects simply "do not pencil", and those that do are often not an efficient use of limited financial resources. 


While modular construction is steadily gaining the attention of the CRE and AEC industries, many of the modular buildings produced in the U.S. are build-to-suit.  As an industry, we need to develop the option for standardized products that can be manufactured at scale so that we can more effectively capitalize on the benefits of modular construction.  In doing so, manufacturers can streamline supply chains, enhance efficiency and increase throughput, all of which will in turn reduce the cost of producing volumetric modules.


To be clear, I am not suggesting that we develop standardized multi-family housing developments as a whole.  However, I am proposing that we aim to standardize the fundamental components of these buildings.


A Path to Standardization


The modern multi-family housing development consists of four (4) basic unit typologies – studios, 1 bedrooms, 2 bedrooms and 3 bedrooms.  Within those unit types, there is a limited range of typical kitchen and bathroom configurations:


  • Kitchens – Single-wall, Galley, L-shaped, U-shaped
  • Bathrooms – Three-in-a-Row, Opposite Wall.



A remarkable amount of efficiency and cost savings can be achieved by designing projects around a limited set of modular unit layouts coupled with standardized kitchens and bathrooms.


Why “re-invent the wheel” with each project?  The cost saving benefits of industrialized construction rely on reproducible, standardized designs and modular components.  With a limited set of unit types, and an equally limited set of kitchen and bathroom configurations within each of those unit types, the opportunity for standardization is readily within reach. 


To support the manufacturing process, a tremendous amount of human capital goes into designing, coordinating and modeling each module type within a given project.  The prevalence of bespoke unit designs for individual projects requires this level of effort to be repeated again and again.  However, through the mass utilization of standardized unit, bathroom and kitchen designs, the cost of pre-manufacturing efforts can be amortized across thousands of units.


Design it once and apply the resources to design it very well As noted above, modular construction requires meticulous upfront planning and design.  This involves detailed coordination among architects, engineers, manufacturers and contractors to achieve the effective use of prefabricated components and ensure their seamless integration with on-site construction.  In the absence of a “moving design target”, these efforts can apply a deeper focus on optimizing standardized designs for performance and manufacturing efficiency.


Creating value through productivity and efficiency.  Standardization and modularization significantly impact manufacturing by enhancing efficiency and increasing throughput.  Standardized designs will create opportunities to expand the use of advanced technologies commonly employed by manufacturers such as robotics, automation and sub-assemblies that will further enhance precision, reduce errors, and improve productivity.  Standardization will also create opportunities for innovation through the development of new products and a market for prefabricated sub-assemblies.

Screenshot 2024-06-28 at 4.23.41 PM

A Call to Action


As an industry, we need to change the way we design and deliver housing at scale.  We must take a more practical approach to delivering much-needed, quality-built housing balanced with the creation of aesthetically attractive spaces.  There is untapped potential and influence among all project stakeholders that, when combined in a collaborative manner, can achieve significant progress in this regard.  In the words of Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”


Download a sample test fit today.