Three Case Studies For More Affordable, Scalable Housing
The lack of affordable housing options around the world is driving more interest in innovative concepts that can rethink design and process in ways that will drive down costs.
A recent panel discussion at the 2023 SXSW conference in Austin brought together three of those innovators to share insights on lowering costs with new, smart solutions that, very importantly, can be brought to scale.
Joe Wheeler is the co-director at the center for design research at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and through 30 years of experience he has helped the industry at large with his involvement in several concept projects and by teaching his students to explore design for sustainability with global award-winning Solar Decathlon projects.
He also has been able to use his expertise to help several builders deliver products to the market. One of them is Virginia-based builder Van Metre. By moving all its construction offsite, the product he delivered with Van Metre arrives to the job site at $100 per square foot on a new, smart townhome—a substantial difference compared to the national average of more than $240 per square foot.
He says the combination of clever space planning and removing on-site inefficiencies were the two keys to getting the product to less than $100 per square foot. Yet, these changes don’t come without friction.
“The trades are so resistant to change,” Wheeler said. “They add thousands to a project when they see something new or different.”
In another project, he is focused on a scalable disaster relief home that is both hurricane and tornado resistant. To develop that resiliency, he’s using a patented carbon neutral concrete.
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Rick Murdock is the co-founder and CEO at Idaho-based modular building company Autovol that is working on multistory projects with a highly automated process. The company invested heavily in automation to create efficiencies and to therefore lower costs.
Robots work alongside the company’s “solutioneers” to build five wood-frame modules per day that can be connected together in up to a five-story residential building. All the mechanical, engineering and plumbing, along with the cleanup work, is handled by human touch, or the solutioneers.
“We delivered our first modular project and it was within one-eighth of an inch on tolerance for a five-story building,” Murdock said. “You can see an amazing difference in quality of work and quality of structure.”
The delivered product averages about $140 per square foot, so the efficiencies are creating big cost savings. Plus, 100 modular units can be set in two weeks, bringing more affordable housing online at a pace that is critically important considering today’s demand.
Murdock is passionately committed to bringing more affordable housing online, which he’s doing with Autovol, in addition to his other business endeavors that compliment the process. He has founded a business to instruct on how to create a manufacturing facility and another that instructs how to build the modules. Right now, these enterprises are in the process of designing seven new plants for other housing developers, another huge boost to scale for the needed supply.
“Multifamily housing will be the greatest need because most people cannot afford single family,” he said.
Alexey Dubov serves as the COO and co-founder at California-based Mighty Buildings, an innovative 3D printing, prefab start up that is using new processes to optimize quality and speed. The company has introduced a proprietary material that is 60% recycled and the rest is aggregates that is used to print panelized walls, floors, and ceilings.
The manufacturing process is focused on panels, plus there are robotics to fill in the insulation, and other machining for connectors between panels. A unique feature of the 3D printing process is that it provides an opportunity to create new designs and explore new geometries.
While in the factory, low voltage wiring is prerouted in the panels, so no electrician is needed. By the time all of this is brought to the job site, all that is needed is two coatings of primer and paint. In a recent project, the onsite work only took two days for a two-bedroom, two-bath home.
With the enhanced process and new materials, the price is similar to conventional projects at between $300 and $350 per square foot; however, due to the advanced materials, the product is higher quality and is anticipated to have a life span of about 75 years.
Mighty Buildings now has two factories online – one in Oakland, California, and another in Monterrey, Mexico. The factories can come online and be producing panels within three months. Dubov says the break even for the investment in the factory is a mere 300 homes, which is a key gateway for the innovation to scale.
These three change agents believe that the process of building homes in factories will be inseparable in the future.
Watch the full SXSW session to learn more about how these leaders think about sustainability, labor and other hot topics.