Technological Solutions Help Address the Housing Crunch

“Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.” Matthew Desmond, American Sociologist

Unfortunately, for a growing segment of our population, a lack of affordable — or attainable — housing is threatening to hold back and delay the flourishing our economy is on the brink of as the prospect of a post-pandemic “New Normal” descends upon us. In terms of building sufficient housing to address a lingering shortage, the new normal is going to have to embrace new technologies in order to produce and maintain housing for all 21st Century demographics.

“We’re facing historic lows as it relates to housing availability,” says Grant Beck with Next Step, a manufactured housing company focused on affordable housing. “As noted today by the White House (September 1, 2021), the share of housing starts, as a percentage of the U.S. population, has dropped since the 1970s. There is a need for more than seven million affordable housing units to serve lower income individuals and families.”

Next Step is a rather unique builder, in that it formed as a nonprofit corporation in 2011 whose stated mission is: “To put sustainable homeownership within reach of everyone, while transforming the manufactured housing industry through consumer education, affordability and energy-efficiency.”

“At Next Step, we believe that manufactured homes present a modern, attractive option that is less expensive for both housing developers and the American public,” says Beck. “When it comes to the design and construction of today’s factory-built homes, many of the features and aesthetics, both interior and exterior, are nearly indistinguishable from those of a site-built home.”

Many factors are currently driving up the costs of site-built homes, from lumber prices rising 180 percent since April 2020 (according to the National Association of Home Builders, NAHB) to a shortage of skilled labor in the field. Centralizing production in warehouses and developing manufacturing lines increases efficiency, reduces site-specific transportation costs and affords better opportunities for work skill development, all without being at the whim of changing weather and climate extremities. Automobiles were not so affordable to the public at large until Henry Ford started building them in his factories. It may now well be the same with basic housing.

BMarko Structures is a modular construction company based in Atlanta, Ga., specializing in custom shipping container conversions, steel, and wood modular construction. “We recently opened a modular manufacturing facility in Greenville, S.C., because we see it as the future of construction,” says Tyler Wise. “Being that it’s in a factory setting there are a lot of variables we can control to minimize production costs and increase efficiency. The production line that is incorporated at our plant combined with repeating floor plans of multifamily projects helps us break every step of the process down to achieve max efficiency.

African American family in front of their house

Photo courtesy of Next Step, based in Louisville, KY.

“At BMarko, we’re taking all the processes of construction and, one by one, transferring them into a manufacturing process. We’ve focused on adjusting little details such as the PSI of our nail guns, to the size of our drywall sheets, and our inventory systems. These items allow us to cut down tremendously on energy, waste, and time, especially when you factor in the same process occurring over and over again for 300+ modules.

“Building in a factory also helps keep mother nature out. That means not losing materials or tools due to rain, vandalism, or theft. It also means we’re able to stay on schedule because we don’t need to stop working just because it’s raining outside.”

On-site stick-framing through inclement weather certainly has its issues, from delayed construction schedules to mold. Factory manufacturing of modular structures not only eliminates that, but allows for the better incorporation of integrated technologies for healthier homes.

Boxabl is an innovative homebuilding company, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, that has rolled out a 20’x20’ Accessory Dwelling Unit, called the Casita, that can be delivered and set up on site in a day. It comes complete with the latest in energy- and resource-efficient kitchen, bathroom and laundry appliances and mechanical systems. Units can be stacked or connected to meet individual family needs.

And, thanks to a studied approach of the construction process, it’s very affordable at $50K, with financing options. Engineering developments and a controlled manufacturing environment allows for construction that makes them resistant to fire, floods, rot, pests, high winds and more. The Casita was a big hit at the recent NAHB International Builders Show, where it was described in reporting as “A solution for homeless, disaster relief, granny flats, and more.”

Galiano Tiramani, founder of Boxabl, sees the issue succinctly. “No one seems to be able to build enough housing. The United States has a multimillion house shortage and things aren’t getting better. At Boxabl, our houses are mass produced on an assembly line, leading to higher quality and lower costs. We also use smart engineering to give us an incredible level of energy efficiency. We have spent the last several years doing R&D and engineering a breakthrough solution to rapidly build high-quality affordable housing. This product has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people.”

Bruce Tolar is an architect and one of the country’s leading experts in design and development strategies for restoring missing middle housing options. His exploration of system- built approaches has led to new strategies for coping with the rising costs of traditional on-site construction. Bruce’s Cottage Square community in Ocean Springs, Miss., is nationally known as a model for the thoughtful use of modular construction. His experience building “Katrina Cottages” following the hurricane taught him many things regarding responding to housing demand and production capacity. We asked him his thoughts on his experiences working on a grand scale.

Bedroom area in dwelling unit built by Boxabl

Photo courtesy of Boxabl

“So, here’s a quick version of lessons learned from my end: Better be patient. We dreamed big in the 2005 planning sessions right after Hurricane Katrina. We cranked out appealing designs we thought suitable for factory production, and Congress and FEMA came up with enough money to design and manufacture thousands of cottages. But it took three years for the actual units to show up. By that time, people displaced by the storm and local governments had moved on to Plans B and C.

“Since then, it’s been a project-by-project, factory-by-factory exploration of how to get professionals from two different cultures, residential architecture and factory engineering, to appreciate one another’s priorities, capacities, and limitations well enough to work together. We’re at that point now with a couple of factories, but it’s taken a decade and a half to get here.

“Now, we’re convinced that by using factory building techniques, we can deliver appealing homes at competitive market rates in the workforce housing categories and above. But dreams of $60-per-square-foot prices for houses in desirable neighborhoods, delivered in volume, within a week or two after ordering — that’s pure fantasy. I think the case we’re making is pretty convincing. We’re getting a little closer every day. But for the time being, patience and gradual steps will be the rule.”

But modern, assembly-line system engineering and manufacturing of modular housing is not the only 21st Century technology being applied to the housing shortage. 3D printing is now in the homebuilding business, with the first neighborhood of 3D-printed, zero-net-energy houses currently being built in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The 1,450-square-foot, single-story homes will be made from a stone composite material that is strong, fire resistant, water resistant and termite proof. The builder, Mighty Buildings, based in Oakland, Calif., claims that it can 3D print structures twice as quickly with 95 percent less labor hours and 10 times less waste than conventional construction.

“We at Mighty Buildings have decided to focus initially on the ‘missing middle,’ those who make too much to qualify for housing subsidies but who still struggle to find housing, particularly in the communities they serve (i.e., nurses, teachers, fire fighters, etc.). While we definitely need more capital A affordable housing, there are other overlooked markets that are also needed — our eventual goal is to provide market-agnostic production as a service to unlock productivity/sustainability across all segments,” says Sam Ruben, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

“We are in a unique time for construction with such a renewed focus on how we can best solve the housing crisis that it truly is an all-solutions on deck moment. That said, and I’m biased, but I truly believe that 3D printing, and particularly in combination with existing concepts such as off-site construction, is uniquely situated to unlock productivity, reduce costs, and provide a sustainable alternative to traditional construction. Not only are we looking at improving production costs/speeds, we are also looking to provide superior energy efficiency and zero-net-energy homes that can provide significant savings in terms of operational costs and therefore overall cost of ownership.”

Mighty Builders 3D-printed homes plant facility

Photo courtesy of Mighty Builders

A Mighty Builders 3D-printed home

Photo courtesy of Mighty Builders.

Not only are these homes powered completely by solar, owners will have the option of a Tesla Powerwall or other EV charger, and each unit will feature a cutting-edge home-wellness system, DARWIN by Delos, that vows to enhance health and wellbeing by improving air quality, filtering water and providing lighting that adjusts to your circadian rhythm.

Small, tight, smart homes are going to be much less expensive to heat and cool than their larger, traditionally framed counterparts, which addresses the full life-cycle cost of the structure. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently conducted a nationwide study of how much of a family’s income is spent on its energy needs, called “How High Are Household Energy Burdens?”

U.S. households spend an average of 3.1 percent of their income on home energy bills. The research found those percentages to be much higher for low-income, elderly, renters and families of color. The report is helping shape local planning. Leading cities and states have begun to incorporate energy burden goals into strategies and plans and to create local policies and programs to achieve more equitable energy outcomes in their communities. They are pursuing these goals through increased investment in energy efficiency, weatherization, and renewable energy.

“There continues to be a housing shortage in most of the United States both in terms of new homes and also the availability of existing homes on the market. In addition, affordable housing is critically needed to ensure safety, health, and access to resources (quality jobs, schools, transportation, and health care),” says Amber Wood, ACEEE Director of Buildings Program.

“The best 21st Century building techniques such as modular homes, panelized construction, and 3D printing can both reduce production costs and increase quality of construction. Energy efficiency techniques such as air sealing, insulation, and efficient heating, cooling and water heating systems help lower energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These can help increase affordability when both buying a home and also when living in the home [through lower utility bills].”

Some tax jurisdictions are beginning to recognize the community benefits of a reduced energy burden and are offering financial incentives for building and maintaining high-performance, energy-efficient homes. Baltimore County, Md., is offering property tax credits if certain performance levels are met, while other communities are providing mortgage credits for purchasing an energy-efficient home. “Manufactured homes that are ENERGY STAR®-certified can save homeowners up to 30 percent on their monthly utility bills,” says Beck of Next Step. “Increased energy-efficiency helps increase value — and upgrading to a more energy-efficient home package can be a powerful investment for homebuyers.”

Building codes and zoning regulations can still be difficult for structures described as manufactured housing because the phrase still bears the stigma of mobile home trailer parks. “Zoning remains a key challenge for the expanded use of homes constructed in a factory,” says Beck. “Local jurisdictions nationwide have restrictive zoning ordinances that prohibit the placement of manufactured homes. These ordinances ignore the capability of home builders to meet local design and aesthetic criteria and are often rooted in NIMBYism that deprives localities of more affordable housing opportunities.”

But today’s manufactured housing has come a long way from the single wide in appearance and value, and local jurisdictions are recognizing that. “More and more local authorities are realizing how much less disruptive modular construction is compared to traditional and after a single occurrence, they see its benefit,” says Wise of BMarko. “It is still an uphill battle on that front, but a battle that is being won more and more, which will benefit the community, the developers, and everyone else involved.”

“I don’t know any builder or developer who doesn’t think governments at every level can do way more, especially if the goal is to expand housing affordability at the speed and scale required,” says Tolar. “Ramped up federal and state funding could be a huge factor. Locally, removing restrictions on small-scale multifamily in residential districts is important. Same with legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and permitting factory-built housing that satisfies building codes in the same neighborhoods as site-built homes.

“The sure-fire losing approach for local governments is to try to arm-twist developers and builders to shoulder all the costs and risks of providing housing at below-market rates. At the moment, at least, factories and builders can keep as busy as they want supplying middle and upper market-rate housing.”

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