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Flatpack skyscrapers: the future of tall buildings?

We’ve all heard of flatpack kitchens and flatpack furniture, but flatpack skyscrapers? These modular high-rise buildings are not just a concept; they are already here and could transform the construction industry.

​​In 2015, prefab construction company Broad Sustainable Building (BSB) completed the world’s tallest flatpack skyscraper. Dubbed the ‘Mini Sky’ tower, the 57-storey building includes 800 apartments for BSB employees. It built on from earlier projects: in 2011 it erected a 30-storey building in just 15 days, and by 2012, it had built 16 flatpack structures in China and one in Cancun.

The company’s goal is to build the world’s tallest skyscraper using flatpack technology. So far, Chinese authorities have blocked efforts to construct the 200-storey ‘Sky City One’. BSB is pitching the concept in other countries, so one day it may become a reality.

Zhang Yue, founder and chairperson of BSB, does not call his business a construction company, but rather, “a structural revolution”. Indeed, the construction method he uses is revolutionary. Instead of building skyscrapers the old-fashioned way, his skyscrapers are made from factory-built modules. Each module contains not just the framework, but also flooring, cladding, plumbing, electricity and other infrastructure. The modules are delivered to the building sites on flatbed trucks, with all the bolts and other hardware needed for erecting the modules included.

Safety and sustainability built-in

A spate of building collapses in China raised concerns about the quality of conventional construction and Chinese authorities are now taking a closer look at the construction industry.

While critics say flatpack skyscrapers are constructed too fast to be safe, Zhang disagrees. “Traditional construction is chaotic,” he tells Wired magazine. “We took construction and moved it into the factory.” He backs up his claim with solid evidence, too: in tests, a BSB flatpack building was able to withstand a 9.0 earthquake.

BSB’s ‘Mini Sky’ tower is 80 per cent more energy efficient than a conventional office building, thanks in part to Zhang’s air-conditioning expertise, which is how he made his fortune. It was after an earthquake caused catastrophic building collapses that he turned his attention towards designing safer, more energy-efficient skyscrapers, he says.

Are flatpack skyscrapers the future of building?

Some critics argue that China doesn’t need new office towers. However, JLL research suggests otherwise. According to projections, demand for high-value financial and business services is growing in Tier 1.5 cities. While current demand stands at about 5 million square meters, by 2025, demand will be close to 20 million square meters. Someone will have to build those extra 15 million square meters of office space, so will it be flatpack construction companies like BSB?

Graham Coutts, JLL’s head of strategic consulting Asia Pacific, agrees that BSB is at the forefront of developing flatpack skyscraper technology. He says while their projects are still very much at the prototype stage, “the technology will possibly have the greatest transformational impact on the building industry since the invention of the electric elevator and reinforced concrete, at least in the developing world where urbanization pressures are the greatest.”

Coutts points out that while erecting a 57-storey building in 19 days draws attention to the technology, “pre-fabrication/modular building is being used already, particularly for ‘wet’ areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens, in high-rise apartments and hotel developments” and it has proven to be both cost and time effective as well as delivering better quality.

Implications for the commercial real estate market

If modular building becomes the norm rather than the exception, Coutts raises some questions on how this will affect the commercial real estate market. “Will the mismatch between supply and demand be reduced, eliminating the resultant real estate cycles, which have long been a feature of real estate investment?” he asks.

“How will the consequent reduction in development risk impact pricing? Secondly, if occupants can meet their office space needs by procuring a new building within a matter of weeks, without the long lead times involved in developing new buildings by conventional means, will there be a reduced tendency to pre-commit and a move to shorter leases and how will this impact the development and institutional investment market?”

Time will tell if Zhang’s vision of a ‘structural revolution’ will become a reality. If flatpack technology becomes standard building practice, it will change both the construction industry and the real estate market.

This article originally appeared on Real Views, JLL's news site that features stories exploring the world of real estate and its impact on the wider business world. Visit the Real Views site to subscribe for our weekly email of top stories, delivered direct to your inbox.