Modular 2.0: how prefabricated housing is making a comeback
As I have written several times for Catalyst, American cities are grappling with a housing affordability problem that will not go away anytime soon.
The main cause is regulation: cities with more restrictive rules build less and have higher costs; those with less restrictive rules build more and have lower costs. But another factor for virtually all US markets is the cost of construction. Prefabricated housing, which is produced and sometimes assembled off-site, has long been seen as a way to cut costs and has seen a resurgence as new technology makes the idea more scalable.
Prefabricated construction has a long history in the United States. Institute of Modular Construction, it dates back to colonial times as an idea brought from England. Throughout postwar America it was linked to various futuristic building plans, although in reality its most common use was as mobile homes for the workforce.
This is how most Americans still think of the housing genre – envisioning low-income trailer parks – but recently the prefab has gained some cultural cache.
A British commercial group, the Modular & Portable Building Association (MPBA) complaints that the sector has grown dramatically, with one article stating that: “The modular industry has had a remarkable impact on reducing costs while increasing quality and safety. Having gained tremendous momentum in recent years, advanced modular techniques reduce construction times by 50-60%. A British company, TopHat, won a $ 103 million investment from Goldman Sachs, which recognizes prefabricated construction as a growth market.
The MPBA indicates that the main method is “volumetric modular construction”. It is the process of developing the structure of an off-site six-sided building. Like Vesta Modular Explain, this is distinct from conventional modular construction as all components are closed.
Another method of prefabricated construction, which has become popular in recent times, is 3D printed structures. 3D printing, based on digital models, can to print mixed concrete to develop complex design walls ready to be assembled. 3D printed homes remain relatively rare, but their adoption could significantly reduce labor costs as some projects just take 24 hours to print and costs $ 4,000.
Erica Barnett of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based urban affairs think tank, cited the big companies Kattera (which it says used another innovative technology, cross-laminated timber), OneBuild and Blokable. Barnett points to the high costs of construction as a key motivation to explore prefabricated methods, observing in 2018 that markets like Portland have a labor shortage and the complexities of multi-family construction make prefab materials attractive.
“Typically, the developer selects a general contractor, and that contractor, in turn, hires subcontractors who then often hire subcontractors, and so on,” Barnett writes. “Ultimately, the entrepreneur at the bottom of this chain gets the job done. Each layer of submarines bears some of the enormous risks of a giant construction project, but also increases the costs. ”
By moving development off-site, often in a single factory, the pre-fabricated method reduces these complexities and speeds up turnaround times. A McKinsey Report estimates that once this industry grows, it will lead to savings of 20%.
But in the United States, achieving this scalability will be difficult, and in fact evolves in the Wrong direction depending on how you look at it. In 1998, the share of manufactured homes in all new single-family homes was almost 40%. This fell in the 2000s with changing lending standards, but over the past decade it has increased and is now around 10%.
Instead, the prefabricated strategy appears to be in a transitional or experimental phase that gradually progresses to success through the work of niche companies. One of them, Automatic theft, based in Idaho, uses robotic technology to put buildings together. Autovol uses volumetric methods, aided by robots that do the construction. The company claims this will dramatically improve speed, and hope produce 1,600 units per year.
The company’s most recent major project is Virginia Street Studios, a multi-story apartment building in San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley and one of America’s most expensive housing markets. , with a median rent of $ 2,374. Company CEO Rick Murdock Recount the Idaho statesman that his product could be a solution.
“We produce affordable multi-family, multi-story housing with the idea that we want to save you 20% of your costs and 40% of your time,” said Murdock.
Along with the San José project, Autovol has one in Oakland, Napa Valley and the central California coast, although the San Jose project is the largest with 301 units. According to Tony Piscitello, an investor in the project, the installation took only 20 days.
Like most other construction projects, the prefab faces NIMBY opposition and zoning hurdles. There is, in fact, often a specific language discouraging such accommodation in local codes, in what is akin to classic snobbish zoning.
Huntsville, TX, has banned “manufactured homes” altogether, while the jurisdictions of South Carolina and Kentucky have limited the lot sizes where manufactured homes can be built. Former HUD Secretary Ben Carson show support for relaxing regulations against prefabricated construction, although this does not appear to have led to changes at the local level.
Communities should reconsider their opposition to a form of construction that was once much more common. New technology improves the appearance and function of these units for the American consumer. The speed and efficiency of the prefab will help lower housing costs in jurisdictions now struggling with housing affordability and may even help tackle homelessness.
This article presented additional reports from Market town planning report content manager Ethan Finlan.