Modern methods of construction (modular panels) versus traditional wall building (block, brick, and timber)

Modern methods of construction (modular panels) versus traditional wall building (block, brick, and timber)

Comparing the costs of different internal wall systems during the construction or renovation of a building can be time-consuming. But it’s a task worth doing to understand the true cost versus benefits and quality. 

People are generally taking a wider view of the pros and cons of wall building thanks to ever-increasing building regulations concerning fire safety and thermal efficiency. Plus, there is a mindset shift towards a more eco-friendly and flexible wall solution – future-proofing.

This has led to a more granular comparison between traditional wall construction methods and composite panels or modern methods of construction (MMC) that offer a total solution with pre-rated thermal and fire ratings – often with eco qualities and flexibility.

And though the upfront cost of composite panels may seem more expensive than traditional building methods, the total cost gap is closing. 

The true cost of building a wall from block, brick or timber requires calculating like-for-like ratings for building materials and construction methods. Remove site mess and waste, and it’s easy to see why MMC are gaining ground.  

By breaking down the individual elements of build priorities, such as time, safety, thermal performance, future use, and business type, it’s easier to compare the true cost versus benefits.

Time and mess of traditional build methods versus MMC

Of all the constraints in building and renovation projects, time is one element that, rightly or wrongly, is a big factor in the choice of materials and construction methods. 

Unlike traditional building methods, composite panels are built offsite and ready to fit (with relatively basic fitting skills required). With Panel Manager, you can also sequence the panels to fit in order as they arrive, removing over-storing or searching for the next jigsaw piece. It’s now possible to have doors, windows and hatches pre-cut. This isn’t a game changer for a builder with trades lined up, but for project managers on tight deadlines – it’s a big consideration.

Safety of composite panels versus traditional build

Meeting safety standards by planning ahead can also save time and money. Fire safety, particularly, is critical when assessing construction methods for walls. Although no construction can be fireproof, the amount of time in resisting or slowing down the rate and damage the fire does is a major consideration. 

Traditional methods of fire resistance are assessed by analysing the materials and construction methods – requiring multiple trades and products. In contrast, a composite panel is certified for complete fire resistance as a unit. A composite panel has a total fire-resistance rating – it’s also now possible to have a non-combustible panel coupled with low smoke emissions. 

Cost versus thermal performance (U value)

As energy costs surge, the cost of heating or cooling a room has pushed thermal efficiency up the consideration ladder. And there is no comparison between traditional build and composite panels – as the thermal efficiency of an air-tight unit with high-grade insulation is far higher. 

A ‘U’ value is given to the total thermal conductivity of a wall; the lower the ‘U’ value the better. 

So, if you think that a traditional wall might have plasterboard, blockwork, insulation in the cavity and even an outer skin of brick – each element has to be calculated to come to a U value. Building regulations set the minimum U level for a wall – currently 0.3W/m2K.

When comparing build cost versus U value, has given an average estimate, but a panel’s type, quality and function can vastly change the costs per m2.

  • *Brick and block: around £70/m2 with a U value of 0.3W/m2K
  • ICF: around £65/m2 with a U value of 0.2W/m2K
  • Timber frame: around £65/m2 with a U value of 0.24W/m2K
  • Composite panels: around £70/m2 with a U value of 0.19W/m2K

Here the panels perform much better for the total cost after all trades are considered. When submitting planning permission, composite panels also make it easier with a calculation available before the build. 

Many panels have airtight construction and are also available in partially recycled materials with a lower carbon footprint. Sound reduction can also be achieved with panels, whereas traditional build methods often require external, specialist board. Other qualities like deterioration rate can be slower with a panel, and mould prevention is also beneficial.

Future use and flexibility of composite panels

It is also common for older buildings to be renovated with a change of use, for instance, a grade II listed building as an office. In this case, the building work is often restricted, and the flexibility to remove internal walls is not only preferable but essential for planning.

Traditional builds offer a permanent structure, but composite panels can offer flexibility for future use. Composite panels can easily move internal walls to accommodate new layouts.

Panels can also be structural, meeting or exceeding the strength of much traditional timber, brick, and block builds while being lightweight and requiring fewer people hours to install.

Business type versus construction method

The thermal rating, air tightness, fire resistance level, and eco-friendliness qualities of a construction method are considerations depending on the purpose or type of business.

For a cold store, retail premises, pharmaceutical, food or automotive operation, panels provide quick ratings to assess function versus performance. In comparison, a traditional build requires different specialists and calculating individual performance per element and construction method for a rating. The time to align each trade against a build timeline is also far larger.  

Evaluating composite panels versus traditional build methods 

Traditional brick, block and timber wall-building methods are no longer the automatic solutions. As the cost of panels edges closer to the total cost of traditional methods, but with far greater benefits of safety, thermal performance, eco credentials and flexibility – they become a major consideration. 

It’s difficult to ignore composite panels’ fire and thermal U performance. And given that most building projects have time constraints – panels can be on par with timber builds far quicker than brick and blockwork construction speed. 

Although traditional methods aren’t going anywhere soon, a more modern approach to building where ratings carry weight is closing the gap between cost and performance.

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