A modular approach to model design and construction provides a flexible framework in which to focus the multidisciplinary research and operational efforts needed to facilitate the development, selection, and application of the most robust distributed modelling methods. A variety of modular approaches have been developed, but with little consideration for compatibility among systems and concepts. Several systems are proprietary, limiting any user interaction. The US Geological Survey modular modelling system (MMS) is a modular modelling framework that uses an open source software approach to enable all members of the scientific community to address collaboratively the many complex issues associated with the design, development, and application of distributed hydrological and environmental models. Implementation of a common modular concept is not a trivial task. However, it brings the resources of a larger community to bear on the problems of distributed modelling, provides a framework in which to compare alternative modelling approaches objectively, and provides a means of sharing the latest modelling advances. The concepts and components of the MMS are described and an example application of the MMS, in a decision-support system context, is presented to demonstrate current system capabilities. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.