Using modules in designing and buildingBy Isabel Berenguer Asuncion
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The production of building materials using the English system has not developed much despite the adaptation of the metric system in the aspects of math, science and commerce. Timber lengths, tile sizes, pipe runs, fabric widths, ceiling tile panels, plywood boards and even door height openings still follow the English units, that when translated to metric, operates on the multiples of 30.5 millimeters—or a “linear foot.” Today’s units of measure find their roots way back into the ancient Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian and Roman worlds where measures of “cubits,” “palms” and “hands” were used in their cultures. Later, these evolved into the Anglo-Saxon and Norman French “inches.” “feet,” “yards” and “miles.” We have the English Empire to thank, as they spread these measures around the world when they conquered and traded in the 17th century.
As a method to curb waste, many building industry practitioners still consider these modules when establishing dimensions in their designs. In fact, I know a few who actually work with a grid as they lay out a floor plan in order to set up the framework from which the rest of their elements can emanate from. The length of two feet is a common module size for many building materials and systems, with multiples of this expanding onto larger module sizes. The popularity of the foot has been outmoded by the current demand for larger and longer materials, and with technology supporting their fabrication. This leads to a commensurate reduction in cost, both in production and handling, and even installation. Best yet, larger sizes also mean less jointing, less lines, and therefore cleaner designs.
I remember when we worked on the Wellness Center in St. Luke’s Global City: as a healthcare facility, the rooms required wide door openings, enough to be able to move beds and stretchers in and out. For the drama, we wanted them tall too—at 2.4 meters or eight feet—and didn’t want to have a large door leaf plus a narrow one like most institutional facilities do. So we managed a single door, eight feet high and four feet wide: large, dramatic and smack on to a full-sized panel of high-pressure laminate and its plywood backing. No cutting, no wastage. We had huge door openings, single-leafed ones that cleanly punctuated the corridors and managed to not appear institutional.
Significant cost savings
Employing modular sizes can also mean significant cost savings. Take for instance a high-rise building making use of large tiles for its hallways: a hallway width that doesn’t coincide with the tile sizes would require cutting the tile. Not only is there cost in the wastage of the tile, but there is also a labor cost for cutting. And not to forget, the hundreds of replacement blades that have to be bought for the tile cutter. Looking at what would be spent per hallway, multiplied by the number of floors for the entire building, what it equates to is waste of manpower and materials.
Cabinetry is best designed in modules as well. Keeping in mind that a plywood panel is four feet by eight feet 1,220 x 2,440 millimeters, partitioning compartments at equal segments derived from the panel dimensions will maximize the panel—and your money. Bathrooms designed on-grid dodge the same fate when not dimensioned to fit the module—tiles have to be cut and excess pieces rendered unusable, just like those corridors. Oh and lest I forgot to mention: it’s a double whammy when you consider breakage during cutting.
Inversely, some suppliers or manufacturers have produced sizes with dimensions adapted from standard anthropometric (body dimensions relating to functions) proportions. Granite slabs, for example, are cut into widths of two feet or 600 millimeters—the industry standard for a lavatory counter or kitchen work top depth. Glass panels are manufactured in six or seven foot lengths to suit glass door heights.
The thing about designing around a module is that it is practical in terms of costs, and sustainable in terms of materials. It’s good to do some research on what is available in the market, and the measure by which it is produced and sold. But don’t gridlock your creativity by strictly designing by module—a healthy dose of its application into various design elements would be a more practical approach.
Contact the author through firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Asuncion-Berenguer facebook account.
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