When someone thinks about how to build a house, they come up with images of busy, noisy, and dusty construction sites.
Our hunger for new buildings and interior spaces has an impact on the planet. A recent report from the Global Building and Construction Alliance, the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Program said that the construction and operation of buildings worldwide accounted for 36% of final energy consumption in 2018.
The Global Status Report for Buildings and Structures published in December 2019 also indicated that the sector accounted for 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in 2018.
Could modular, prefabricated buildings that are manufactured "off-site" play a role for the future of sustainable construction in view of the growing demand for new residential and commercial buildings?
The idea of pre-assembled or prefabricated houses is not new. In Great Britain, for example, many of these structures were developed to address a significant housing shortage after the end of World War II.
A total of 156,623 "temporary prefabricated bungalows" were built in Great Britain between 1945 and 1949, according to The Prefab Museum.
More than 70 years later, as concerns about the environmental impact of building increase, the concept of modular, pre-fabricated and sustainable development is becoming increasingly important.
"Modular and off-site buildings that are designed and delivered to a high standard can offer a number of environmental benefits," said Richard Twinn of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), a nonprofit and "member network" that focuses on the built environment and environment focuses sustainability, CNBC said via email.
"During the construction process, there is potential to significantly reduce the amount of waste produced, which will also reduce CO2 emissions," said Twinn, senior manager of Advancing Net Zero at UKGBC.
In practice, prefabricated and modular structures take many forms. A variety of residential areas across the UK are beginning to emerge using these techniques.
In southeast London, for example, the Royal Borough of Greenwich now has Lister Terrace, a development of four new homes that were built in a Yorkshire factory and then lowered using cranes.
The townhouses, which were "precision-made" in the factory of a company called ilke Homes, have solar panels and use air source heat pumps instead of gas boilers.
They have been described as "extremely airtight" – which helps reduce heat loss – and "able to produce more energy than they consume".
The speed at which modular development can be completed is another advantage that is further enhanced by the UKGBC's Twinn.
"Shortening construction times can also help minimize construction site emissions and improve local air quality," he said.
"The precision engineering of an off-site solution can also result in significant improvements in thermal performance when using the building by improving airtightness and helping to reduce the performance gap between modeled and actual energy consumption that often occurs in new buildings," he added added.
These types of buildings are not limited to the living area. Earlier this month, the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in the north of England announced that work on a £ 8m ($ 10.3m) sterilization facility for health care had begun.
According to the trust, the Central Sterilization Department (CSSD) will be a carbon neutral facility, and 90% of the program will be "completed off-site, reducing construction time and costs."
Back in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the authorities seem to be interested in developing modular buildings.
In a statement emailed to CNBC, Cabinet Member Anthony Okereke said the district was "unwavering in its commitment to solving the housing crisis and combating climate change."
"With our Greenwich Builds program, for which Lister Terrace is the successful pilot, we are building hundreds of low-carbon public housing across the borough," he said.
Okereke described the modular structure as "crucial for us to be able to build these sustainable homes quickly, efficiently and with minimal disruption while maintaining the highest standards of durability and quality."