affordable housing

Modular Construction - A Tipping Point for the Affordable Housing Industry?

For more than a decade I’ve been touting the benefits of modular construction to the affordable housing industry.  In the early years, I was trying to convince bankers that modular construction was real property – they confused modular with manufactured housing (aka mobile homes or double wides).  Then it was talking with General Contractors about how their subs would bid out the site work, and whether they would charge a premium due to decreased scope or uncertainty about scope.  And the latter few years was spent encouraging an Owner to be the pioneer – to be the first to build a multifamily affordable housing project using modules. 

tortise and the hare

tortise and the hare

At times I felt like I was the proverbial tortoise watching the hares run by with built prototypes and talk of market rate multifamily projects. Michelle Kauffman, with her Breeze House and Glide House, opened up the single family market and suddenly prefab was perceived as cool and sustainable by the likes of the Sunset and Dwell magazine readership. When Michelle was a keynote speaker at the Housing Washington Conference [1] a few years back, I thought “wow, it’s about to tip!” But it didn’t.

Until now.

On July 23, we opened bids for Schemata’s first modular construction project. The pioneering client is the Renton Housing Authority. The project is an 18-unit 2-story multifamily project – predominantly townhomes but with four stacked flats, making the scope a perfect test case.

2013_0315 Modular Graphic-1.jpg

Modular construction means that residential units arrive on site 90% complete with interior finishes, flooring, plumbing and lighting fixtures, electrical wiring, plumbing lines, windows and even exterior cladding if you choose. The modules are trucked to the site and lifted onto a site built foundation by a mobile crane.  

OneBuild Modular Setting

OneBuild Modular Setting

The state and county funders thought the project was very innovative and awarded the project funding on the first round, which was quite an accomplishment in such a competitive environment.  And while construction for sitework will commence immediately, the L&I approval process [2] for the modules is just starting with the selected manufacturer which means that modules cannot begin production for at least 2-3 months. 

The design of the project started off with a strong understanding of the shipping constraints [3].  While modular construction can accommodate wide open and double height spaces, the greatest economy can be achieved when modules are essentially intact, self-contained boxes.  Given the tight construction budget, we elected to be conservative with our first project and go the latter route, expressing the modularity of the construction type in both the unit planning and exterior expression.  Intent on a design that would allow the new homes to fit in with the neighboring modest and traditional housing, we looked at the gable form of the archetypal house.  However, the width of the units were 14’ wide and gables over each unit which would have created a busy roofline.  Instead, the gable was split over 2 units and the two halves slid past each other to provide modulation along the street.

KAT concept diagram

KAT concept diagram

As townhomes, the stacking of units creates a fairly straightforward connection (or marriage) of modules with similarly straightforward wall and floor/ceiling assemblies; however, transition between the floors (namely at the stairs) had to be increased due to the redundant structure in the floor/ceiling assembly which resulted in lower ceiling heights than typically desired. The flats were not limited in ceiling height and the floor/ceiling assembly still posed some challenges relative to the sound transmission and impact noise.  In addition, the marriage line required some attention in the detailing since there were openings between modules.  This was not an issue at all with the Townhomes since the connection between modules was only vertical. However, the marriage line at the stair between upper and lower modules will be carefully reviewed during the “button up” phase [4].

Many owners assume incorrectly that modular inherently means a savings in construction cost.  As one modular vendor aptly described, modular construction uses the same lumber and drywall that a site –built project requires. The deliveries that occur to a job site still take place, just at a factory leading to basic materials costs which are more or less the same as traditional site-built construction.  It is true that the working conditions in a factory are much more efficient and result in lower material spoilage and waste, yet any cost savings in labor are offset by the fact that the modules are over-engineered to withstand the structural impacts of transport and lifting by crane. In fact, there is almost double the wood framing in a modular construction project than typical site-built project, making the modules very structurally robust. So it is not feasible that the costs would be less. Now if there were some economies of scale (not as significant on an 18-unit project), there is the possibility for the overall cost per square foot of the modules to come down significantly.  

Where the potential cost savings lie are in the construction interest carry. For any developer of affordable housing, the ability to reduce the amount of interest paid means that there are more funds available for higher quality, durable finishes or a play structure for the children who will live in the project, or the staff time to provide supportive services for the residents.

2013_0315 Modular Graphic-2.jpg

Shorter construction time also means that the units are available for residents to move in sooner meaning the owner can start collecting rents and servicing the debt faster.  This is of benefit to any multifamily developer, non-profit or market rate.  However, for the affordable housing developers, the ability to provide more units in a shorter timeline means that they have the ability to serve more hard-working families, seniors, and veterans in need of housing.

We look forward to seeing whether Schemata’s first modular construction project will be the tipping point for the affordable housing industry and for Schemata’s multifamily portfolio.

  1. Housing Washington is the state’s affordable housing conference.  It is held annually and between 700-800 people attend - primarily non-profit housing developers, public housing authorities, social service providers, lenders, attorneys, architects and contractors working in the affordable housing industry.  As one of the largest of its kind, the conference draws 10% of the attendees from other parts of the country.
  2. Washington State Labor & Industries will review the modular plans for adherence to building and energy codes.  L&I will issue a Gold Insignia for each module, which will dramatically decrease the permitting costs but will increase the costs for special inspections.
  3. Trucking dimensions are roughly 14’ wide, 65’ long and 14’ tall.  Modules can be wider or longer, but pilot cars will be required, adding to the already high transportation costs. 
  4.  Button up refers to the patching of the marriage line between modules – both vertically in the townhouse stair and horizontally between rooms of the flats.

Queen Anne Residence Remodel/Addition

“Places are spaces that you can remember, that you can care about and make a part of your life. Much of what is built now is too tepid to be remembered.”

Chambers for a Memory Palace, by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore

‘Tepid’ may be the word to describe this home before the renovation and addition but ‘memorable’ is now the word that takes its place. Although still in construction, it is beginning to take shape and its pronounced form is highly visible. No longer is it simply a modest home overshadowed by the tall adjacent homes but it is confidently perched on a hill to capture beautiful views of Seattle. The procession through the home is one that continues to entice, the main level has modestly high ceilings, keeping the ceiling height of the original home, while the second level increases the ceiling height by nearly a foot. When you finally reach the third story, the cabana level, the height is unrestricted on the large roof deck overlooking Seattle. This creates a pivotal destination point for the procession through the home.  All these moments have resulted in a truly memorable place that the residents are anxious to make a part of their life.

For more information and to see the rendering and sketches go to our website here


Highlights from the 2011 National Cohousing Conference

This is one of the few conferences that I attend annually where I wear more than one or two hats. At most conferences I’m an attendee and frequently I’m a presenter. However, at this conference I also wear the hat of National Board Member, professional (cohousing architect – aka “expert”), and cohouser (member of a forming cohousing group). While it is not uncommon to have these other identities at other conferences, they are not repeatedly highlighted throughout those conferences in the same way. Keynote addresses were made by Liz Walker, Ross Chapin, Katie McCamant, and Chuck Durrett. Common theme amongst all of their talks were around the importance of relationships and the resiliency of communities. Liz spoke about the Ecovillage she lives at in Ithaca, NY. She talked not only about the cohousing communities that are part of that Ecovillage (FRoG, SoNG, and soon to be TREe), but also of the sustainable agriculture and educational outreach that are integral to their community life. Ross Chapin shared a beautiful collection of slides that illustrated the concept of “pocket neighborhoods” – which is also the title of his recently published book. Katie McCamant inspired us with stories of the early days of cohousing when she and her husband/partner Chuck Durrett recruited friends to help edit/distribute the book which has become known as the “cohousing bible” from their basement of their first home. Chuck Durrett closed the conference stating that cohousing may be at a tipping point in mainstream America; there is a heightened awareness of cohousing as an alternative housing model that is attractive to a variety of families and individuals. The keynote addresses provided a lot of food for thought and inspiration to go back home and try to build community wherever we can.

This year the Board devoted a considerable amount of effort on advocacy for affordable housing. I helped the conference team develop a presentation track on the topic, inviting leaders from the DC area who worked both at the regional and national level on issues of affordable housing. There was lots of interest from conference participants in learning how to incorporate affordable housing into cohousing communities and fostering connections with national housing organizations that are also working on issues related to affordability.

Other sessions – eldering in cohousing, developing meal program, facilitating connections among residents. Great sessions for those living in community as well as in forming groups.

Tours – I took all day rural tour of Liberty Village, Ecovillage in Louden County, Cotactin Cohousing and Blueberry Hill. Distinct contrast to the other communities on tour – Eastern Village Cohousing and Takoma Village Cohousing. Demonstrated the wide range of physical form, rural-to-urban settings, and personalities that comprise the broader cohousing community.

For fun there was the annual dinner and auction. I couldn’t help notice the remarkable difference of this event from my first conference 6 years ago to now. As a board member, I was impressed with the significant improvement in the Association’s ability to raise money…while making it fun for the attendees.

As a table captain, I decided to up the chances for fun by playing musical chairs. - I took the liberty to have participants change seats twice between courses – giving them a chance to mix up the group and encourage many connections to be made during dinner.

During the dinner, we honored Dene Peterson of Elderspirit Cohousing with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I told my table (comprised mostly of young people) that they should all take note and strive to be like Dene. We should all be so privileged to be recognized by our peers in the same way some day.

The conference also marked the end of a year-long search for a new Executive Director for the Cohousing Association. The three finalists were invited to attend the conference (on their own dime) and were interviewed in formal interviews and numerous one-on-one conversations with board members. After the 3 solid days of being “on”, I was impressed with the caliber of our candidates. It was a difficult decision for the Board because we were in the fortunate situation of having 3 highly qualified individuals to select from. I think we would have been happy with any one of them. But our job was to choose, and I believe that our new ED has the skills, knowledge, and grace to take the Association to a new level of professionalism, advocacy, and financial wherewithal. (The new ED will be publicly announced shortly).

One take away from the conference is the concept of “being a communitarian”. While I’ve been involved with the communities movement for a while, I had a heightened awareness of what it meant to be a communitarian – which I think allows for a graciousness towards others that is rarely seen in popular American culture. I saw an intentional effort not to judge people based on appearance and behavior but to meet individuals where they are and to assume good intent until proven otherwise. This is hard behavior to adopt for someone like me who was raised in a highly critical family. It is a skill that I am starting to develop and I saw others exhibit their skills in many ways - they way they were welcoming of newcomers, of their acceptance to those who looked/acted different, and how they interacted with one another with a high level of respect and regard.

Leaving the conference, I feel a deep gratitude for the elders, board members, fellow cohousers who are trying to create a sustainable planet, one neighborhood at a time.