The Innovation of Modular Housing: How Buildings Learn Pattern Languages
September 15, 2021 4:56 AM   Subscribe

Apartments Built on an Assembly Line [ungated] - "The pandemic put a general crimp in housing construction, but made a California factory that churns out prefabricated housing extra busy."[1,2]
Mr. Holliday, who co-founded the factory with Larry Pace, said doing it this way, versus constructing a building on site, also cuts costs by as much as 30 percent. In the Bay Area, where the price of building a single affordable housing unit is close to $1 million, it can mean the difference between a developer building an apartment or not...

A year and a half after opening its doors, the pandemic hit. Even as demand for housing accelerated, construction stalled. Prices skyrocketed for crucial materials like lumber, even further increasing the cost to build and worsening California’s affordability crisis, particularly in the already pricey Bay Area, where the median price for a single-family home now tops $1 million. Nationally, home prices were up a record 18 percent in July over the same month last year, according to data from CoreLogic.

Mr. Holliday said the upshot is that more developers in this staid, traditional industry have been willing to experiment in an attempt to cut costs and get projects done quickly. As a result: “We’ve been flooded with work.” Factory OS has expanded to add a second factory right behind the first. The company has 24 more projects in the pipeline and is planning to open a third factory in Los Angeles in the next two years to meet demand in Southern California...

Factory OS is primarily focused on affordable housing — about 80 percent of what has been built here ranges from housing for the previously homeless to below-market-rate apartments for lower income workers, artists and students. The company takes on a handful of market rate and luxury projects too, but in the past three to five months, there has been so much demand that Mr. Holliday said he has had to turn away business...

Mr. Holliday said one of his big challenges is finding enough workers to meet demand. “The labor force for building housing is shrinking,” he said. His solution? Hire and train people who may not otherwise find employment. About half of Factory OS’s unionized employees are “second chance” workers, including about 20 percent who have served time in prison.
also btw...
  • Rents rise in 30 biggest US cities for the first time since Covid - "Single-family homes that were built-to-rent saw even bigger increases, with prices up 13.9pc from a year earlier. Those gains have triggered a surge in interest among institutional investors in housing as an asset class... in some cities like San Francisco, an increase in the supply of new housing may be damping the rent rebound."[3]
  • The Rapid Increase in Rents - "What is happening? Why? And what will happen... there are quite a few apartments under construction. There have been significant delays in construction, but we should expect quite a few completions over the next year increasing supply."
and in other building and architecture news...
“The big urban question of the 1980s and 1990s was what to do with former industrial areas of all of our major cities,” says Owen Hopkins, director of the Farrell Centre, a research hub for architecture and planning at Newcastle University in England. In the 2020s, he says, it’s “What can we do with post-retail spaces?”
Six years after Fishman-Bekmambetova’s arrival, a massive initiative often referred to as a “green revolution” has dramatically reshaped this city 450 miles east of Moscow. Tatarstan’s Public Space Development Program, launched by Fishman-Bekmambetova and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, has created or upgraded more than 420 projects throughout the republic, including parks, walkways, gardens and other kinds of landscaped areas.

You don’t have to walk far in Kazan to see how the new public space program has changed the city. Near the center of the city is the Lake Kaban Embankments, designed by the Chinese-Russian consortium Turenscape +MAP and completed in 2017. The project transformed a formerly deserted postindustrial site around three lakes into a waterfront promenade with rows of trees, beds of wild grasses and wooden decks. At night, the area is illuminated by lights inside glowing red benches of diaphanous resin. Huge fountains rise on the lakes; restored wetlands help clean the once-heavily polluted water...

The effort has garnered much international attention: In 2019, Kazan hosted the World Urban Parks conference; that same year, the Aga Khan Foundation awarded Tatarstan’s public space development program its prestigious Architecture Award. But according to Fishman-Bekmambetova, the team’s most meaningful achievement has been to democratize the design process. The Tatarstan initiative adopted a process known as participatory environmental design, a discipline pioneered by U.S. architect Henry Sanoff. Each project is preceded by extensive public meetings and surveys, even though this kind of outreach can delay projects and result in time-consuming revisions.

“We come and ask people what they want done, what they want preserved, and what they want to go,” Fishman-Bekmambetova said in phone interview. “And if less than three-quarters of the people are happy, we change the project according to their comments.”

Community input traditionally has not been a major part of decision-making in Russia. But the participatory design approach Fishman-Bekmambetova initiated in Tatarstan has since become the template for open-space development in many regions throughout the country.
"The non-democratic approach is more efficient in the short term, but the greatest danger is losing common sense."
posted by kliuless (33 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Modular housing has been around for many decades. Huf Haus in Germany are probably the best-known.
posted by pipeski at 5:08 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


These tiny prefabbed houses have been popping up near my place. Apparently the council leases the houses from the manufacturer (can't find the article now, but I gather they're meant to be returned at the end of the lease).

It was amazing to see them put in. The ground-work was done over a few weeks, plumbing and footings, and then in one day they'd truck in the houses for one site and crane them into place. I think there are five sites on my road, which each would've had a three or four bedroom house (well, a meth-lab in one case). Now they've got like nine one-bedroom tiny-houses.
posted by pompomtom at 5:46 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


Rooms in the central a-frame of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World were prefabricated and lowered in place by crane. Apparently the original idea was that the hotel could be periodically renovated by just lifting rooms out and replacing them with newly prefabricated ones, but in practice this has never been done.

There are also some rooms at the Polynesian Resort which were built the same way, and I believe that's how cabins in cruise ships are also built. They're just prefabricated off-side and stacked in place as the ship is being built.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:47 AM on September 15 [5 favorites]


Before all the cries for Density!! start up, I want to highlight the following quote from the post, mention that developers came up with that density trickles down to affordability pitch and loooove it, and that not everywhere is the Bay Area.
"Those gains have triggered a surge in interest among institutional investors in housing as an asset class."
posted by sepviva at 5:47 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah that's the discussion that's being had right now: once housing capital itself becomes an institutional investment vehicle, shit be fucked. Landlords are bad enough, but if families who want to buy single family units for a domicile are bidding against billion-dollar funds for them, it's time and past time for some euphemisms.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:00 AM on September 15 [17 favorites]


The way we build housing has always struck me as really, really, weird. I swear it's just holdover BS from the pre-industrial era that got so burned into our brains as "the way to build houses" we just got stuck in a rut and can't think of anything else.

Also mobile homes are cheap crap most of the time so that kind of poisoned the well.

But seriously, imagine getting a new car the same way you get a new house. Big trucks bring individual car pieces to your driveway and car building experts come to your house and assemble the vehicle there. Most of the car parts aren't even "parts" when they get there just random chunks of metal that have to be cut and shaped on site to match your car design. A few arrive as nothing but ingots which are cast and forged to be unique parts your car has and no other car has.

Eventually, months and months after you order a new car the workers clear off and you have a vehicle that cost you 10x what it would have cost to just go to the Ford factory and buy one.

Yes, mobile homes suck ass. They're cheap and terrible and awful. But that's like saying "well, the Yugo was a bad car so therefore factory built cars are bad".

I realize it's not exactly possible to build an entire house in a factory and ship it to the site, but maybe rooms could at least be built?

Here in San Antonio there's a hotel they talk about as a one time marvel. The Hilton Palicio Del Rio was built for the 1968 World's Fair. But there wasn't time to build it the traditional way, instead they had the hotel rooms built in factories, shipped the entire room to the site and assembled it like a giant LEGO set.

It was put together in next to no time, it cost less than building the traditional way, and it's an attractive hotel (for 1968 values of attractive) both inside and out.

After it empirically proved that building hotels that way works, is fast, is cheap, and doesn't sacrifice quality the world collectively decided that it was a one time marvel, that no one should ever do anything like that again and went right back to building hotels the old and stupid way.

The world is desperate for some way to build housing faster ad cheaper without skimping on quality and yet, for reasons that baffle me, since mobile homes suck everyone just decided that any sort of prefab is terrible and must never be considered.

We stick with building homes in a way that we would instantly view as foolish and wasteful for building literally anything else. Oh, we say, if only there was a way to have faster and cheaper homes oh well there isn't so let's keep trucking raw materials to a site where they're assembled painfully slowly at huge expense.
posted by sotonohito at 6:09 AM on September 15 [17 favorites]


Prefab is a thing in Sweden. Prefab elements are common in single-family homes and in apartment buildings. A trade publication ran an article in 2015 called "Why Sweden beats the world hands down on prefab housing." (Alas, the article does not actually explain why, it just makes that claim and links to some research, which I might look at t'were I not not deadline.) Thanks for the great FPP, kliuless.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:47 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


As people have pointed out here, prefabrication has existed in the industry for most of the 20th century and has numerous benefits to speed of construction, quality, efficiency and worker safety. I worked for a prefab housing startup from 2006-2010 and we made a great product. That company no longer exists.

The mistake a lot of people make is assuming that prefab isn’t as common because people in construction are either corrupt or stupid. This is essentially why Katerra failed - their executives were extremely dismissive of the entire construction industry and didn’t really listen to any expertise within the field, so got a lot of basics wrong. You see this a lot in tech (eg Tesla “building their own factories”, etc).

The reason most modular companies eventually fail is that modules are expensive to ship which makes modular a regional business with maybe a 1000 mile delivery radius at most. Beyond that, shipping costs eat away at your cost benefit and developers can’t make it pencil. Given that construction is a boom and bust market, most companies can’t weather the downturns in their local markets, which can drop to 0 housing starts for *years* in some cases, without the ability to focus on another region to bridge over.

This limitation is less pronounced for building products, which is why the prefab industry as it exists is largely about components- wall panels, unitized glazing, trusses, or things we don’t think of as “prefab” but are like doors, windows and casework. A lot of current construction is built off site, just in smaller chunks.

I still think modular makes a ton of sense in some industries and root for the successes, but it’s a tough and financially risky business to be in, especially in the long term.
posted by q*ben at 6:48 AM on September 15 [45 favorites]


Thanks for that perspective, q*ben. I have been confused for years over why prefab companies would appear to be so promising and then ... die. The regional aspect and shipping costs weren't discussed in what I have read (not deeply) on the topic. What you say makes total sense. No wonder so many exciting Dwell-promoted entities fizzled.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:53 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]


sotonohito: That style of prefabricated, unitized construction has been tried multiple times. Sometimes it's advantageous, sometimes it has not worked out so well.

The Court of Flags Resort in Orlando is one example. I think it was largely based on experience gained during the construction of Disney's Contemporary the year before, but designed to be even faster and cheaper to put together. US Steel was a major backer, and presumably saw a lot of promise in the methodology.

Some people clearly liked it (delightful Web 1.0 nostalgia site). I remember staying there once as a kid when it was called the Delta, and thinking it was pretty awesome, although mostly just because of the number of pools.

Anyway, apparently the concept didn't pan out too well: the rooms were meant to be replaceable, like hard drives slotted into a backplane, but I guess they warped and got stuck (?), and Wikipedia mentions that the gaps between the rooms and the frame led to mold growth in the Florida climate. The whole thing was sadly torn down and scrapped in the early 00s.

There are still companies using the system, though. They seem to have given up on the idea of replacing the modules after initial construction, but still claim cost/time/complexity advantages.

But I don't think it's fair or correct to imply that "traditional" home construction hasn't changed with the times, though. I'm currently in the midst of a significant house renovation, and one of the biggest parts of the project is the off-site manufacturing of the roof trusses and other structural components. According to our builder, virtually nobody (in our area anyway) frames roofs on-site anymore. It's all done in regional factories with automated machinery, then delivered to the job site "just in time" for the stage in construction when it's needed. In theory, it's a big time/cost saver. (In practice, it's driving me crazy because apparently the truss factories are all fucked up due to COVID and it's throwing the whole project schedule off. But I digress.)

Anyway, even something seemingly minor, like the introduction of pneumatic nail guns, can change the economics of construction. I'd imagine that when wood framing was typically done by dudes with a hammer and a bag of nails, there was a lot more benefit to off-site prefabrication. But with nail guns and by buying the appropriate lengths of lumber (to minimize the need for trimming), it's really amazing what a couple of people can do in a day. It doesn't surprise me that the cost of transporting an entire prefabricated structure (oversize load costs, etc.) might not make sense.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:56 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


In my experience, most residential construction is done by fairly small local companies, usually family based, and they just do what they know how to do. They know that if they build conventional platform-framed houses that they'll be able to hire sub-contractors who know what to do without much supervision and buyers won't be scared away by unfamiliar designs.

Innovative design sounds great but how many prospective home-owners are going to risk their life-savings on something new and risky?
posted by octothorpe at 7:08 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]


A FactoryOS building just went up near me & it's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen. I know we have bigger fish to fry but I wish these things didn't have to look like warehouses for human lives.
posted by bleep at 7:10 AM on September 15 [7 favorites]


Octothorpe, in my experience once you get some model or example projects built you can usually flip that on its head- you have much more consistency of quality with factory conditions. Factory tours also are a good selling tool.

Also wanted to mention a “second gen” modular innovation- some companies like Connect Homes are building modules to ISO standards so they can be shipped as containers, which massively simplifies logistics. It comes with a lot of limitations on size, shape and construction type but is a really interesting idea.

Kadin, search Metabolism in an architectural context and you’ll see some amazing mid century projects based around the idea of reconfiguration and prefabrication, like the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Japan.
posted by q*ben at 7:16 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


Just popping in to say anyone interested in modular houses, prefab houses, tiny houses, ADU’s, cool and unusual houses and basically anything other than the typical American suburban house should also check out the YouTube channel of Kirsten Dirksen

From high-tech origami apartments to hippie, hobbit holes, she pretty extensive tours and interviews of builders, architects and owners across mostly the US and Western Europe. It’s worth poking around and digging. Some of these are dream houses for me. Others object lessons in what I would never do.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 7:26 AM on September 15 [5 favorites]


The reason most modular companies eventually fail is that modules are expensive to ship which makes modular a regional business with maybe a 1000 mile delivery radius at most

This is so extremely, painfully true. IIRC, the industry average max range in the US is more like 500 miles, barring ocean transport. Past that most companies won't even bother to bid the job.
posted by aramaic at 7:46 AM on September 15 [3 favorites]


There's so many areas of the US that people can't afford to live in because there's too many people there, and also many areas that people can't afford to live in because there's not enough people there. Maybe we could use factories like this around the country to even it out a little bit. The factories would need workers and the workers would need restaurants, doctors, hospitals, etc. You know, SimCity stuff. Maybe we could get back to something like basic civilization building.
posted by bleep at 8:03 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I can't help but think of the Sears Modern Homes and other kit homes -- not quite the same thing, but a similar concept. From 1908 until 1942, you could get a catalog from Sears, and buy a house. They would send you all the pieces, all-pre-cut, and you'd put it together yourself -- essentially an Ikea flat-pack house. Or the Blue Apron of homebuilding. It's not as modular as this, but it's the same general concept: the bits that are easier to do at a factory, you do them at the factory.

Sears stopped manufacturing them during WWII, and apparently made a couple other housing kits post-war, but in nothing like the pre-war numbers. Post-war, it seems like the kit-house market was eaten up by the tract-house/subdivision market, which worked in a similar way, but more centralized. A developer would buy a chunk of farmland, lay out roads, pour concrete slabs on each of them, and mass-build an entire neighborhood. Using the same kit-build strategies, but even more centralized and even less customized.

It looks like kit homes never really went away, but fell largely out of fashion. I bet there's a doctoral thesis or popular history book to be written here about the various rises and falls of kit homes, modular homes, and bulk housing building at various times and places around the world. Lots of doctoral theses and popular history books.
posted by Xiphias Gladius at 8:12 AM on September 15 [11 favorites]


speaking of (market) democracy: "This video speaks volumes about the oversupply in China's housing market. 15 tower blocks in Kunming 昆明, the capital of Yunnan province, were demolished last month after sitting unfinished for eight years."
posted by kliuless at 8:16 AM on September 15 [3 favorites]


the introduction of pneumatic nail guns

I forgot to mention: Interestingly enough, there was brief period when the pneumatic nail guns increased the use of prefabrication -- when they were first introduced they were expensive and mobile compressors weren't really a thing (they existed, of course, but weren't so common), so a number of companies started up to provide "nailing services" as it were, using big centralized compressors and overhead pneumatic distribution lines.

They panelized construction, using pneumatic nailers to rapidly produce frame components and ship them to jobsites faster than a hand-nailing crew could erect similar pieces.

...unfortunately for those companies, nailguns and portable compressors both got cheaper pretty quick, and jobsite framing crews caught up. Many of the companies collapsed after only a couple of years; those that survived usually turned into truss manufacturers, and now use truss connector plates rather than nailguns.
posted by aramaic at 8:37 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


Sears kit houses seem much nicer than the present day versions.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:03 AM on September 15 [6 favorites]


Need faster printers.
posted by sammyo at 9:44 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


So I have lots of thoughts about this, at least for residential market in the US (I've been exposed to countless startups in this sector as part of my work).

First of all, like many others upthread, I find it bizarre that the press and the VC market stays fixated on residential prefabrication and ignores places (like hospitality, pharma, semiconductor, oil&gas) where prefabrication has been a quiet success fro many years. I ascribe this to the fact that those sectors are more complex and less-relatable -- it's easier to tell a story about houses than it is to tell one about a refinery.

But sticking with the topic: In order to be successful, USian residential prefab companies have to balance five key performance criteria. They must maximize labor arbitrage, minimize shipping costs, optimize site preparation work, and maintain expensive capital assets like factories and inventory... all while providing a product that fits a market subject to wild swings in supply, demand, and consumer tastes.

This is incredibly difficult to do, and like others upthread, I haven't seen a company in the last two decades that's cracked it -- because the optima for each criterion interacts complexly and often inversely with the others.

For instance:

Labor arbitrage demands that you move production to areas of low wages or precarious workforces. RAD Urban (back when they were a going concern) established production in Lathrop, CA where they offered starting production wages below $15/hr. Of course, with their major market about 70 miles away, the factory's cost savings came at increased shipping expense. With their main facility in Vallejo, FactoryOS does a bit "better" on shipping costs. But the majority of their workers make $18/hr or less, nowhere near a living wage anywhere in the Bay Area's nine counties.

Another example:

If you're a prefab company, you need to keep your capital-intense operation (the factory) running as close to 24/7 as you can, in order to increase cost efficiency and hopefully see a return. This requires you to have sites prepared and ready to accept modules.

But site preparation work is incredibly hard and time-consuming. Excavating, connecting utilities, pouring foundations, getting entitlements from the city -- all of these take time and are subject to high levels of variability and risk. Soil conditions may vary from expectation and lengthen excavation times, city agencies and utilities don't typically care about your schedule at all, and concrete foundations remain labor-intensive and site-built (for the most part).

You can mitigate the site prep costs and risks by building on greenfield sites. However these sites are likely far away from urban centers or decent public transportation, and don't demand market prices that make prefab viable.

So this likely means that you have to attract and retain top talent in real estate acquisition (so you can even find enough sites) and construction management to acquire and prepare multiple sites simultaneously so you can do just-in-time placement of product rather than warehousing and double-handling it. I did some consulting for a regional prefab startup a few years ago and in order to keep their factory running at optimal efficiency, their real estate and construction team would have had to bring one site out of the ground every 45 days. With site prep times in their market averaging 12 months, this meant they would have had to hire at least 8 site prep teams, which is difficult to do when you're competing with every other construction and prefab outfit in the region. So salaries start to rise and you're forced to choose between paying top dollar for talent or running your factory at sub-optimal efficiency.

The startup-in-question chose to not make the labor investment, ran out of capital halfway through their first big project due to the carrying costs on their factory build, and folded.

And all of this happens before you can even truly validate the fitness of your product for the market. In addition to their other failings, Katerra was conspicuously arrogant in the belief that they could offer a superior product to their competition, but failed to test this hypothesis, and as a result they were stuck with a multi-billion-dollar supply chain that couldn't produce a quality product.

All this being said, the US construction industry is changing -- traditional companies (like MiTek, DPR, LendLease, Turner, and others) are now setting up capital-intensive prefabrication and modular facilities, which takes the onus of that investment off of the (likely cash-strapped) startup. This has led to companies like Juno, Apt, and Mosaic that offload the risky prefabrication and construction part of the work to partner companies, focusing instead on product design, testing, certification, and sales.

Ultimately, outside of niche markets I believe most "vertically-integrated" residential prefab companies will fail -- but I am very interested to see how the emergent and capital-light version of this business does over the coming decade.
posted by turbowombat at 10:51 AM on September 15 [16 favorites]


q*ben: Octothorpe, in my experience once you get some model or example projects built you can usually flip that on its head- you have much more consistency of quality with factory conditions

My new England Colonial house was built in the mid-1980s and it is just badly done. Lots of shortcuts and scrimping and simply poor workmanship. I would love to live in something assembled by competent people with good QA.

In any area you care to name, the builder blew it:
  • They used half-inch subfloor in the kitchen, and then put tile over it. I expect the grout began cracking immediately with the floor's flexing, because lots of it was gone when we bought the place in 2010.
  • One upstairs bathroom features not tying down the showerhead plumbing at any point, so all work risks cracking the pipes, plus no shut-offs, plus small tubing to the whole second floor.
  • The rafters in the garage were notched wrong at the bottom, so they flipped them over and re-cut them. All of them.
  • Someone scratched "FUCK YOU" into the wet cement of the basement floor at the bottom of the stairs, and they just...left it. The previous owner built shelves over most of it.
  • They bladed off all the topsoil and sold it, so my yard is this miserable sandy gravel, with a couple inches of dirt; it used to be a farm!
  • They used a bathroom vent fan with an 18-inch circular faceplate, and then cut that into the plaster ceiling. There is exactly one bathroom vent fan with an 18-inch circular faceplate (the same bottom-end Braun unit), so we're going to have to hire a plasterer to re-do the ceiling when we finally throw it out.
Really, only the topsoil thing wouldn't have been caught in the design stage or by a good quality-control person.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:19 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Re Sears houses: there are apparently some companies selling pre-cut house kits, where all the pieces are cut to length and marked where they need to join each other, based on your particular house plans. They claim it's up to 20% faster when being built by professional framers; I'd imagine that it would be considerably faster if it was being DIYed. Seems interesting, at least.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:30 AM on September 15


offload the risky prefabrication

If I were going to get back into the construction industry, I'd set up a lights-out (effectively unmanned) structural steel fabrication facility, accepting only fully-detailed jobs that have erection sequencing nailed down (or, at minimum, out of my scope), and then I'd crush existing fabricators on speed and pricing.

Doing some huge-ass transfer truss? I'm not bidding that job. Doing an office block? I'll have your steel ready to go in about a third the time of my next-fastest competitor, for half the price. Not gonna do detailing, not gonna do erection sequencing, not gonna hold any hands -- tell me exactly what you want done, and we'd do it faster than you ever thought possible. Plus, I'm not shipping air, like the modular folks do.

Drawback, as noted above: gigantic investment required right out of the gate, plus the industry is set up for the EOR to delegate much of the design to the fabricator, to say nothing of drawing quality. So, realistically, I'd have to be a subcontractor to someone like W&W/Cives/Herrick, and if they were gonna do that then they'd do it themselves and not hire me.

...so I'm guessing I'm saying I'd go bankrupt in about a year and lose a personal fortune. On the plus side, goddamn, my pieces would be perfect, with erection marks damn well everywhere (layout/marking machines have gotten really good); if one of your guys puts a fucking shot pin in my RBS I would tear your ass off and hand it to the GC for lunch.

They bladed off all the topsoil and sold it

I've heard it said that most of the topsoil in the Bay Area was shipped to the Central Valley by homebuilders, circa 1959-63.
posted by aramaic at 11:34 AM on September 15 [5 favorites]


They bladed off all the topsoil and sold it, so my yard is this miserable sandy gravel, with a couple inches of dirt; it used to be a farm!


I worked for one contractor who would dig a pit in the back year and throw all the construction debris into it and then dump the dirt back over it rather than pay for dumpsters. Every house comes with a free hidden landfill!
posted by octothorpe at 11:39 AM on September 15 [9 favorites]


I think the reason prefab has never taken off on residential is because the actual construction part of a house is the cheapest part.

When Sears Kit homes were popular, the land acquisition costs, environmental remediation [practically none], permitting, and so on were probably less than the construction costs. And they didn't have cement foundations, they had mostly crawl spaces.

Prefab on office is relatively popular with tilt-wall buildings going up super quickly.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:54 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Also cement work apparently used to be paid and worth nearly nothing. Southern CA is such a weird place where with current construction costs, the cement block walls around everyone's backyard costs more to build than the actual 1300 sq ft homes they live in. That probably wasn't true then.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:56 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


Aramaic, you’ve locked onto the dynamic right now, heard the same kind of proposal for MEP. The thing is in D-B there’s a trend to delegated design which is entirely counter to the wishes of the sub. The solution? Hand off to a different engineer of record contracted under the sub at 30-60% with the original engineer staying on as “design engineer”. This is clearly a halfway house in terms of solutions but I’m just making lots of popcorn and sitting back and watching the show.
posted by q*ben at 4:27 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


in order to keep their factory running at optimal efficiency, their real estate and construction team would have had to bring one site out of the ground every 45 days

Could we plan to move the factory? Find a real estate market running hot, move a modular factory’s machines there, build til it cools, hope there’s another hotspot on the continent to swoop down on.

If there are enough wide scale downturns that moving couldn’t keep a factory working and paid for, then it isn’t actually cheaper, is it? Organisms reflect that too; overoptimizing to exploit a temporary niche is a trap.
posted by clew at 5:37 PM on September 15


The housing theory of everything - "Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates."
There is another way. Increasing the supply of housing and commercial space, while ensuring that it benefits existing residents, could turn this zero-sum situation into one where everyone can be better off. This might be done, for example, by allowing them to vote on increased density, and benefit from it directly. The new demand could be accommodated and the financial rewards to development could be shared with existing residents without displacing them.

The aggregate, countrywide effect of housing being so limited in supply has been that economic growth in most Western countries has accrued more and more to landowners and less to everyone else. Economist Thomas Piketty famously demonstrated an increase in the share of national income that flows to owners of capital, rather than to labour. But what was less widely acknowledged was that, at least in the US, it was really an increase in the share of income going to landowners, driven by increases in the cost of housing, and that this effect was particularly strong in states that have highly restrictive rules against building more homes.

The rising inequality Piketty demonstrated appears to have been largely driven by housing shortages turning, in one economist’s words, ‘houses into gold’. And this is the case across the Western world: housing inequality, not income inequality, primarily determines how much wealth inequality there is in most Western countries...

Many young people have had to delay forming families and often take poorly paid, insecure jobs that can barely cover rent and living costs as the price for living in culturally attractive cities. They see opportunity as limited and growth as barely perceptible. Meanwhile, older generations sit on housing property worth many times what they paid and, stuck in a zero-sum mindset, often prioritise the protection of their own neighbourhoods over the need to build more homes. Can you blame young people who resent older people, and the West’s economic system itself, when this is what it offers them?

If all this has a solution, then we suggest it is unlikely to be won through a zero-sum political ‘tug of war’. Western countries could become trillions of dollars better off by addressing their housing shortages. A well-designed solution can spread those gains widely enough that everyone is made better off, including people who currently oppose existing efforts to build more that would make them worse off.

We have suggested one possibility elsewhere: radically localized democracy that allows individual streets to opt in to greater density by voting for it. No construction would happen anywhere that a majority did not opt for it, but streets that voted for more density would become extremely valuable, so there would be a big incentive for homeowners in high-demand areas to vote for greater density.

But whether this or another approach is the best solution is not the key question. What matters is that housing shortages may be the biggest problem facing our era, and solving it needs to become everyone’s highest priority. And as important as it is, we should be wary of letting it become politically tribalised: the disastrous politicisation of Covid vaccines in the United States highlights the danger of that. Some kind of creative, below-the-radar solution that turns this zero-sum game into a positive-sum one is likely to have a better chance. In a tug of war, its often surprising how far you can go if you tug the rope sideways.

If we’re right about this, it means that fixing this one problem could make everyone’s lives much better than almost anyone realises – not just by making houses cheaper, but giving people better jobs, a better quality of life, more cohesive communities, bigger families and healthier lives. It could even give renewed reasons to be optimistic about the future of the West.
posted by kliuless at 9:26 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


radically localized democracy that allows individual streets to opt in to greater density by voting for it. No construction would happen anywhere that a majority did not opt for it, but streets that voted for more density would become extremely valuable, so there would be a big incentive for homeowners in high-demand areas to vote for greater density.

This would be insane. And it's not 'true', in that if people wanted to vote for more density at the municipal level for their property to become more valuable, they would already be doing so. In fact, localized density gains flowing to property owners (it's not correct to assume that all would vote or that all would be actual home owners) is already occurring at the max rate and the prices required would be so dramatic as to be nearly unimaginable.

To put it another way, the median home price in SF is close to $2m, across most of the populous parts of California to $1m, but the development is low. So what's the price that most would vote for increased density? It's easy to ascertain that the average for 1/10 of an acre would be above $2m, but how far above?

In any case, such values if achieved across the entire US, would not lead to good outcomes and would be completely unsustainable.

We aren't even going to cover the 'freerider effect' of increased density to the next neighborhood over from one that did vote for increased density. Nor that 'neighborhood' is generally an undefined concept [unless you assume all are named like suburban subdivisions], so turning them into sizable voting blocks is not exactly easy.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:58 AM on September 16


Oh yeah, redlining shows that cities will cheerfully destroy their own property values in certain areas, so it's wrong to think that individuals wouldn't do the same.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:57 AM on September 16


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