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Modular Construction: Addressing the Housing Crisis

Cheryl O'Neill and William Fears

Mass Production Techniques Make Housing Faster and Cheaper to Build, and is a Powerful Tool to Increase the Housing Supply, Especially in the Affordable Realm.

The “hard costs” of building construction are one of the primary determinants of housing production. Over the past decades, hard costs have been escalating, responding to increases in labor and materials and chronic shortages in both, especially in hot real-estate markets. While market-rate developments often pass on increased costs to renters or home-owners in higher prices, affordable housing has limited funding and caps on sales or rental prices. Increased hard costs thus results in the production of fewer affordable units. This is happening simultaneous with the loss of existing low-income units, especially in attractive locations, as the influx of new market-rate units raises rents across the board and pushes low-income dwellings out of the affordable range. The result is a loss of both new and existing affordable units, and an exacerbated housing crisis.

Modular Construction: a Game Changer

As a means to address this crisis, we have harnessed the use of modular construction in our mixed-income projects, most notably our Westlawn Gardens project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Modular construction, which utilizes the factory production of major building components, creates an efficient and streamlined construction process that delivers housing units in compressed time frames with equal or lower hard costs. A multi-phase, multi-year neighborhood revitalization, Westlawn will eventually deliver just under 1,000 new mixed-income units, together with new streets, open spaces and neighborhood amenities. Our client was particularly interested in utilizing modular construction to address escalating hard costs in Milwaukee, and construction delays caused by its frequent inclement weather.

Modular construction is hardly new. Mobile, pre-manufactured homes have been around for decades and are one of the primary housing types of many rural areas. Sears popularized the construction type with their “kit houses” of the early decades of the 20th century, where all the pre-cut, pre-manufactured parts of a single-family house could be ordered from a catalog, delivered in a boxcar, and assembled in 90 days by a carpenter with only minimal training. The program realized some 75,000 homes across the country and was, for a time, a staple of many a growing neighborhood.

Westlawn Gardens

Westlawn was designed with a variety of housing types, including multi-family apartments, townhomes, duplexes, senior and flexible units. The traditional middle and working-class neighborhoods of Milwaukee were our inspiration, with their modest but graceful homes, and variety of traditional styles, which we married with a modernist language that lent spark to the neighborhood’s most defining public edge. Our use of modular construction was limited neither by type nor by style. This was an important test for us, confirming that mass production techniques need not result in the deadening monotony of the public housing our Westlawn revitalization was replacing, but was instead capable of creating the nuanced architecture of a neighborhood that evolved over time.

We utilized two modular systems at Westlawn. The first panelized system was employed in the early phase townhouses and apartment buildings. Complete exterior wall systems, including exterior sheathing, weather barriers, and windows were constructed in a nearby factory, delivered to the site intact, and erected by crane. Minimal field labor was required to fix the panels in place, allowing an entire townhouse string (up to 6 units) or floor of an apartment building to be erected and weather-tight in a matter of days.

The modular unit in the factory at left is the 3rd floor module on the home at right.

In the second phase, we utilized a 100% modular system on the townhouses and duplexes in which an entire module of the unit – in this case a single building level complete with floors and walls – was factory constructed and delivered intact. Floors were fixed to walls that were complete with interior and exterior finishes, windows, interior plumbing and wiring, cabinets and other fixed interior elements. Basement to crawl spaces were constructed on-site and the modular components delivered and hoisted in place by crane. The result was a single unit – complete with all mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems installed and 85% of its interiors complete - could be closed in and weather-tight in less than a day. This same methodology was used for all three of the languages used on these units, creating the desired variety.

The result at Westlawn Gardens will be a construction time frame reduced by at least three months, realizing a more efficient, reliable, and lower cost method of delivering units, with no consequent reduction in quality. As we look to the future, we think modular construction has tremendous promise to address our current housing crisis and deliver on a more socially equitable future. Our next step is a workshop in Florida where together with our developer and construction partners, we will look to further the utilization of this game changing system.

Look for our next installment!  

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