From temporary offices and storage units to pop-up retail outlets and entire schools, modular buildings are a ubiquitous part of our everyday life. They can be found on just about every construction site and the ways they’re used seem to be increasing all the time. But how did we get here? Where did the use of modular space begin?
Have Space, Will Travel
The origin of modular buildings arguably dates back to the first Ice Age. At the time, man not only needed shelter from the changing climate and harsh environmental elements but also had to keep moving to maintain access to food sources. The lineage of using mobile space for living and working can be traced to the seventeenth century, when Cardinal Richelieu and Napoléon deployed wheeled vehicles for cooking, eating, resting and working as part of their traveling caravans.
But perhaps the greatest advancements in modular solutions came in the latter half of the Industrial Age starting in 1851.That year, the first instance of prefabricated and sectionalized buildings, a subset of modular solutions, was seen in the Crystal Palace at the Grand Exhibition in England, which utilized a 48-piece system in building manufacture and site assembly. The Palace was constructed in six months and eventually disassembled and relocated in 1852, making it one of the first functioning, mobile structures of its size.
Jump ahead to the twentieth century and the introduction of the automobile, which enhanced our mobility and ushered in the idea of traveling for fun. By the mid-1920s, family auto-camping trips were a popular pastime and travel trailers entered the scene. When the Depression struck, these “fun” travel trailers became the prime residence for many families crisscrossing America to escape poverty, find work and reboot their life. By 1938, the American Automobile Association estimated that 10 percent of 300,000 known travel trailers were being used for extended or full-time housing.
Mobile Modular Space Goes Commercial
This is the point in the timeline when the history of modular reaches a fork in the road when it comes to the end user: While recreational or mobile homes continued on their route, mobile/commercial offices set off on their own course. In the 1930s, commercial modular manufacturers began supplying small office trailers to commercial and residential jobsites.
The “Scotsman” part of Williams Scotsman can trace its history back to supplying trailers to the movie industry in the late 1940s. Some credit Howard Hughes with the invention of the movie dressing trailer in 1940, as he apparently converted buses into fully equipped mobile units to house movie stars on location shoots for RKO Studio projects. By 1955, the “Williams” part of Williams Scotsman patented a mobile office that would be employed by the construction crews building the Interstate Highway System we both love and hate today (more on that later).
Sears Roebuck and Company may have given birth to the prefabricated modular building industry in the United States. Customers could order building material kits, along with overalls and washing machines, through the Sears catalog. By 1908, they could request “The Book of Modern Homes” featuring a variety of house plans and materials for purchase. From 1910 to 1940, Sears sold an estimated 500,000 prefabricated homes or “prefabs” from under $700 up to $4,000. In 1939, the Depression and declining profits shut down Sears’ operation, but WWII brought in a new dynamic. Prefabs served the need for emergency housing on military bases and for employee lodging near war production factories. After the war, thousands of returning GIs were ready to purchase homes – a demand that exceeded what the traditional homebuilding market could offer in availability, timeliness and cost. Many of the modular manufacturers operating today got their start in the late 1940s and into the 1950s by providing the prefab homes baby boomers grew up in.
The Modular Industry We Know Today
In 1955, a patent was issued to Albert Vaughn Williams for the technology to build mobile offices for the construction crews building the Interstate. This “trailer” and its descendants have gone on to occupy countless construction sites throughout the world. Whether single or in multiple configurations, mobile offices or modular buildings still meet the requirements of availability, cost effectiveness and flexibility.
The use of overhead cranes has enabled expanded use on large-scale projects (Williams Scotsman built its first modular building in 1967 composed of six 55’ x 10’ units and used the process to build its own corporate headquarters in the 1990s). All major industries use modulars for temporary, swing space or longer term purposes. Modular space solutions can be as simple as an onsite office, environmentally friendly and “green”, or as sophisticated as a customized command center outfitted with high tech equipment.
Although the basic box shape – the perfect building block – has not changed dramatically over the years, new products are emerging. One is the panelized office trailer product that delivers a compact, environmentally friendly footprint as well as the ability to be stacked up to three stories high. Because they are composed of interchangeable sections, panelized products offer end users versatility in space arrangement along with the flexibility inherent to mobile space.