Editorial Feature

Study on Carbon Emissions Produced by Reinforced Concrete and Modular Construction

This article reviews a study on the carbon emissions produced by modular construction methods versus those using traditional reinforced concrete. The researchers, writing in the journal Buildings, used a Korean case study to investigate their hypothesis. 

modular construction, reinforced concrete, concrete, construction, wet concrete

Study: Comparison of the Embodied Carbon Emissions and Direct Construction Costs for Modular and Conventional Residential Buildings in South Korea. Image Credit: tsyklon/Shutterstock.com

Most buildings in South Korea are currently constructed using traditional wet construction methods, such as reinforced concrete (RC) construction, even though this can result in productivity issues due to a lack of functional engineering capabilities, skilled workers, and unfavorable weather conditions.

It is hardly surprising that construction companies are becoming increasingly interested in modular construction methods, in which pieces are made in factories under regulated conditions and then transferred to the construction area for assembly.

Modular construction is a high-tech, dry-construction process that boosts construction productivity and efficiency. Off-site construction, which includes modular construction, refers to the pre-fabrication or manufacture of discrete units that are then assembled on-site to form the finished structure.

The benefits of modular construction, like its integrated design approach, productivity, and structure, have been the focus of most research in this area. Since the building industry contributes to more than 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, it is essential that carbon pollution from the industry is reduced.

In-depth research on factors such as environmental effect assessments and economic evaluation of modular construction methods are required to assure the overall sustainability of modular construction techniques.

Modular construction methods.

Modular construction methods. Image Credit: Lim, 2016

Modular construction methods.

Modular construction methods. Image Credit: Kamali and Hewage, 2016; du Chayla, et al., 2021

As a result, this study compares the embodied carbon emissions and direct construction cost of a modular residential building during the production phase to those of a traditional residential building. Researchers concentrated on the material production phase because it has been shown that in modular building approaches this step produces more embodied carbon emissions than other project stages.

Methodology

Principal drawings and design details of the modular residential building chosen for this study were created. Table 1 and Figure 3 provide an overview and front view of the project, respectively.

Front view of target building.

Figure 3. Front view of target building. Image Credit: Jang, et al., 2022

Table 1. Project overview. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Division Contents
B-Wing C-Wing
Project 1st District of Public Housing in Cheonan Dujeong District
Supply Area 485.80 m2 653.32 m2
No. of Households 20 households 20 households
Floors B1F ~ 6F
Structure B1 F ~ 1 F RC (A-wing)
2 F ~ 6 F Modular (B-wing, C-wing)

 

The common section, designated A-Wing, was constructed using the traditional RC construction method, while the residential parts, which included portions of the B-Wing and the C-Wing, each with 20 houses, were constructed using two alternative modular construction methods.

As a result of modular and RC construction methods, Table 2 compares the embodied carbon emissions normally produced by construction materials used for residential buildings.

Table 2. Quantity of major construction material using the two building systems. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Materials Unit Modular Reinforced Concrete
RMC ton 210.96 814.20
Steel ton 53.65 -
Gypsum Board ton 42.38 2.25
Metal ton 22.90 11.41
Sand ton 13.01 46.40
Rebar ton 7.28 24.56

 

The Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI) developed embodied carbon emission parameters that were used to assess embodied emissions in the manufacturing stages of modular and RC residential buildings. Table 3 shows the embodied carbon emission factors for several important construction materials during the manufacturing process. The unit costs of major construction materials are shown in Table 4.

Table 3. Embodied carbon emission factors in the production phase for major construction materials. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Material Material Characteristics Units Embodied Carbon Emission Factor
RMC 24 MPa kg-CO₂/m3 414
18 MPa kg-CO₂/m3 409
Steel Channel kg-CO₂/kg 0.404
Glass Double Glazing kg-CO₂/m2 22.4
Gypsum Board - kg-CO₂/kg 0.138
Rebar - kg-CO₂/kg 0.438
Block - kg-CO₂/kg 0.123
Tile   kg-CO₂/kg 0.353
Cement - kg-CO₂/kg 1.060
Sand - kg-CO₂/m3 3.870

 

Table 4. Unit material cost of major construction materials. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Material Unit Material Cost *
RMC 24 MPa USD/m3 50.9
18 MPa USD/m3 45.3
Steel Hot Rolled Steel USD/ton 645.2
Channel USD/ton 661.3
Glass Double Glazing, 16 mm USD/m2 18.2
Double Glazing, 22 mm USD/m2 22.8
Gypsum Board Fireproof Board USD/m2 6.0
Rebar SD400, HD10 USD/ton 542.9
SD400, HD13 USD/ton 535.2
Block 190 mm × 57 mm × 90 mm USD/each 0.04
Tile Porcelain Tile USD/m2 6.9
Porcellaneous Tile USD/m2 7.3
Cement Ordinary Portland Cement USD/pack (40 kg) 2.8
Sand - USD/m3 23.4

* 1 United States Dollar (USD) = 1240 Korea Won (KRW).

Results and Discussion

The results of the embodied carbon emissions assessment of the primary construction materials utilized in this study are shown in Table 5. Figure 5 presents a comparison of the embodied carbon emissions for the modular and RC construction methods.

Table 5. Results of the assessment of the embodied carbon emissions. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Materials Modular (B-Wing) Reinforced Concrete
Embodied Carbon Emissions (kg-CO₂) Proportion (%) Embodied Carbon Emissions (kg-CO₂) Proportion (%)
Metal 47,961 35.32 24,793 11.66
RMC 37,967 27.96 146,506 68.92
Steel 29,719 21.89 - -
Glass 6238 4.59 8047 3.79
Gypsum Board 5849 4.31 310 0.15
Cement 4236 3.12 19,886 9.36
Rebar 3191 2.35 10,757 5.06
Tile 474 0.35 1669 0.79
Block 121 0.09 408 0.19
Sand 31 0.02 112 0.05
Stone - - 71 0.03
Total 135,787 100 212,559 100
Per m2 279.51 - 437.54 -

 

Comparison of the modular and RC building embodied carbon emissions.

Figure 5. Comparison of the modular and RC building embodied carbon emissions. Image Credit: Jang, et al., 2022

The direct building expenses of the modular and RC construction methods are shown in Table 6 and Figure 6.

Comparison of modular construction and RC construction costs.

Figure 6. Comparison of modular construction and RC construction costs. Image Credit: Jang, et al., 2022

Table 6. Direct construction costs for the modular and RC construction methods. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Activities Modular (B-Wing) Reinforced Concrete
Cost (USD) * Proportion (%) Cost (USD) * Proportion (%)
Metal work 186,202 39.01 88,020 19.93
Reinforced concrete work - - 129,968 29.43
Carpentry work 92,976 19.48 - -
Miscellaneous 70,145 14.70 35,484 8.04
Windows 37,123 7.78 41,083 9.30
Interior finishing work 29,875 6.26 40,366 9.14
Temporary work - - 28,764 6.51
Roofing and gutter work 20,668 4.33 4700 1.06
Tile work 5750 1.20 19,398 4.39
Painting work 18,005 3.77 3124 0.71
Waterproof work 704 0.15 17,793 4.03
Glass 7487 1.57 16,831 3.81
Plastering 3124 0.65 6908 1.56
Stone work 5118 1.07 5969 1.35
Masonry work 155 0.03 546 0.12
Aggregate and Transportation - - 2626 0.59
Total 477,332 100 441,580 100
Per m2 982.57 - 908.97 -

* 1 USD = 1240 KRW.

Even though the direct building cost was slightly greater, the outcomes of this study revealed that modular construction can lower embodied carbon emissions throughout the material production phase when compared to an equal RC structure.

As shown in Table 7, the environmental impact of RC structures is higher compared to modular structures.

Table 7. Characteristics summary table of RC method and modular method. Source: Jang, et al., 2022

Classification Previous Studies This Study
 Reinforced Concrete (RC) Modular Modular
Environment By using concrete, which is a carbon-intensive material, as the main material, a lot of environmental impact occurs. By minimizing the use of ready-mixed concrete and using materials with a high reuse rate, it is possible to reduce carbon emissions by up to 88% [58]. The modular construction method reduced embodied carbon emissions in the material production stage by approximately 36%.
Cost In general, the initial cost is less compared to the modular method. By mass production and using regular factory workers, it is possible to reduce the cost of materials by about 10% [2,68]. The modular construction method was approximately 8.1% higher than the reinforced concrete construction method.
Time It is highly influenced by external factors such as weather, so the possibility of air delay is high. By simultaneously manufacturing factories and on-site work, it is possible to shorten the construction period by 50% compared to the existing method [76]. -
Quality Influence by external factors is high, and quality problems occur frequently. Manufactured by standardized working methods in the factory to ensure quality. -
Safety The on-site work period is long and the safety accident rate is high due to the heavy equipment. It is possible to reduce the occurrence of safety accidents by minimizing fieldwork. -

 

Conclusion

The results of the modular and RC construction methods were compared and assessed, as well as the embodied carbon emissions and direct construction expenses incurred at the time of the material production phase of a residential building.

The study identified that when compared to the traditional RC approach, the modular construction method decreased embodied carbon emissions in the material production stage by around 36%.

It also observed that when direct construction costs for modular and RC building methods were compared, the modular method was more expensive.

The direct construction cost of the modular construction technique was 477,332 USD, which was approximately 8.1% higher than the RC construction method; according to an examination of the two methods’ direct construction costs.

However, the benefits of modular design such as ease of maintenance and high recycling rates were not addressed in this study. Amore comprehensive cost analysis will be required to acquire a full life-cycle perspective.

Journal Reference:

Jang, H., Ahn, Y., Roh, S. (2022) Comparison of the Embodied Carbon Emissions and Direct Construction Costs for Modular and Conventional Residential Buildings in South Korea. Buildings, 12(1), p. 51. Available Online: https://www.mdpi.com/2075-5309/12/1/51/htm

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Skyla Baily

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Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!

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