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Massive modular dorm built like ‘scaled-up Lego bricks’

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Apex House, Europe’s tallest modular tower, showcases prefab’s power to go green and save money

Construction of the Apex House, a modular dorm in London that’s now the continent’s tallest modular building
HTA Design LLP

With London’s growth pushing the city skyward, news that a 28-story dorm just topped out won’t grab many people’s attention. But look beyond the facade of the Apex House, a soon-to-be-completed example of the benefits of modular construction, and suddenly the project becomes a lot more noteworthy.

According to Rory Bergin, an architect with the UK firm HTA Design, which designed the project, the building exemplifies the economical and environmental advantages of this style of construction. The volumetric assembly style has been called “scaled-up Lego bricks,” and offers a speedy, cost-effective way to add dense, vertical housing to cities.

“We want to emphasize that these are buildings with good design first,” he says. “Emphasizing the nature of the manufacturing is secondary.”

Assembled at a factory in Bedford, 15 miles outside of the capital—every individual room was pre-made, with furniture and decorations as well as the bed and closet already installed before it left the assembly line—the 560-room student dorm was built a year faster than a similar-sized structure using traditional methods, and is now the tallest modular tower in Europe.

After the concrete core was put together on site in the London borough of Brent, modules, or “boxes,” were trucked in and then assembled atop a concrete base, with a facade of glass-reinforced concrete panels added for the final touch. Up to 60 boxes were added per week. After the final floor was placed in April, the building is on track to open for the new school year in September.

Renderings of the Apex House in London
HTA Design LLP

Factory assembly not only accelerates construction, but offers a number of environmental benefits, says Bergin. By centralizing production, travel and delivery time of the completed modules, carbon emissions from transportation are cut. Factory quality control enables the builders to standardize and achieve tighter building envelopes, allowing for more energy-efficient units. For these reasons, Apex House was able to qualify for BREEAM status, a global sustainability standard.

“The building and construction waste from this project will be one-tenth that of typical construction,” says Bergin. “The construction noise in the neighborhood is also reduced. There are many aspects of prefab that bring benefits that normally aren’t considered with standard building criteria.”

Apex House was completed with Tide, the company’s development partner, which has collaborated for four previous projects, and Vision Modular Systems. Bergin says the company has a handful more in the pipeline, and has even consulted on projects as far away as Hong Kong. With land prices and costs rising in London, he feels he’ll have plenty of opportunities to go taller. Eventually they’ll crack the 30- and even 40-story barrier.