Modular Goes Modern
Emily Pollock posted on August 16, 2018 |
A model of one of the modular buildings springing up in Vancouver, Canada, to house the city’s increasing homeless population. Modular housing is more popular than ever, reflecting changing assumptions about what the medium can and can’t do. (Image courtesy of The Georgia Straight.)
A model of one of the modular buildings springing up in Vancouver, Canada, to house the city’s increasing homeless population. Modular housing is more popular than ever, reflecting changing assumptions about what the medium can and can’t do. (Image courtesy of The Georgia Straight.)

A modular housing project in Vancouver, Canada, has been quietly gathering attention for its affordability and quick turnaround time. This project provides an excellent opportunity to think more about what modular means and what it can do.

Modular buildings, also known as prefabricated or designed for manufacturing, are built in offsite factories in sections called modules. They are then shipped to the building site and constructed with the help of cranes, often on top of a basement foundation. In the past, modular housing was relegated to the corners of the market, but it’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed modular housing way back during the war, when they had to quickly develop structures so that they could house military and their families,” said Frank Baldesarra, CEO of Cadsoft, which makes BIM software for modular homes. “The concept of modular housing has been around with us forever. The question is, how does it become relevant in today’s time?”

Why Modular?

Gary Wyatt, Autodesk director of building design, cited several factors that have made modular more popular. The primary one is the skilled labor shortage that has hit construction markets worldwide in the past few years, making it difficult for contractors to hire enough workers.

According to Wyatt, modular home construction means that more of the skilled work is done at the beginning of the building process, allowing designers to leave detailed instructions on how the modules should be put together.

“By using offsite fabrication processes, you can have much lower-skilled people be able to actually construct these buildings,” he said. “It’s almost like an Ikea or Lego-like approach where the designer can specify what the building is going to look like and how it should be put together.”

Autodesk has been traditionally seen as being on the design side of the design/construction split. Recent software acquisitions have brought it closer to bridging the gap. According to Wyatt, modular construction also blurs the line between these two areas. 

“I think using a designing for manufacturing your approach, what you’re really doing is connecting people who have not traditionally worked that closely together,” he said.

Autodesk model of a shipping-container home. Autodesk is one of the major players involved in the business of designing modular housing. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Autodesk model of a shipping-container home. Autodesk is one of the major players involved in the business of designing modular housing. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

That collaboration allows for greater control over both the process and final product. According to Wyatt, “We’re able to take fabrication level of detail and take that not only into the factory, where things are being constructed, but also into the field, where things are being constructed from the various components manufactured offsite.” When it comes to the process, he added that manufacturing houses indoors removes factors like weather, which can cause significant building delays.

The lack of delays is another important factor in favor of modular housing, especially when the world’s urban population is growing quickly. 

“We’ve been running some numbers, and we figure that by the time we get to 2050, there’s some fairly interesting stats that 200,000 people per day are going to be moving to cities,” Wyatt said. “We’re going to have to build an incremental 5,000 buildings by the time we get to 2050 compared to the buildings we build today. It’s really hard to scale the industry given the kind of population growth we’re going to have.”

He is excited rather than worried by what he sees. Looking at the future of modular housing, he said, “I don’t see barriers, I see opportunities.”

What’s on the Market?

Current modular homes span a range of applications and are more versatile than ever before.

“There is a new generation of folks, we’re certainly among them, who are bringing prefab to places it’s never been,” said Steve Glenn, managing director of prefabricated building company LivingHomes. “Prefab has been the defining production process for mobile homes for decades, but it’s been less likely to do what we call infill or urban homes.”

LivingHomes has been in the news recently after the release of its Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADI), more commonly known as a granny flat, meant to be placed on a property where there’s already a building. 

“The idea is to create a tiny home in your backyard that you can use either for rental or housing for family members who might live in those units,” said Glenn, who added that there’s nothing stopping interested buyers from purchasing the building to put on an empty lot. 

LivingHomes’ new modular housing unit, the LivingHome AD1, is chiefly meant as a granny flat, or an apartment to be built on the property of an existing house. (Image courtesy of LivingHomes.)
LivingHomes’ new modular housing unit, the LivingHome AD1, is chiefly meant as a granny flat, or an apartment to be built on the property of an existing house. (Image courtesy of LivingHomes.)

The units are prefabricated in Rialto, Calif., before being shipped out to build sites. Each unit has 400 square feet of living space divided into a living room, bedroom, kitchen and full bathroom. It can be installed and finished in a single day and has the option of being installed with a helical pile foundation system, which cuts down weeks of conventional foundation construction to a single day.

While the AD1s are startlingly unique, LivingHomes makes a lot of more standardized houses, buildings it would be difficult to tell apart from the average home on the street. While much of the modular market focusses on single-family dwellings, multi-family modular are just as viable—and possibly even more useful. In 2012, the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYFC) of Portland, Ore., built a modular housing project for low-income Native American families. The modules that made up Kah San Chako Haws, East House in Chinook, were built offsite, shipped to the location by truck and lifted into place by crane. As a result, the project was completed five months faster than it would have been using a more traditional approach.

Stakeholders in the building also worked to ensure that it wasn’t cheap or poor quality and suited the needs of its residents.

“We hope to establish a new standard for what affordable housing should be,” Rey España, NAYFC director, told the Oregon Live. “This is the type of housing we want to promote. This is how people can live with respect and dignity.”

Which brings us back to Vancouver’s temporary housing.

Case Study: Vancouver’s Housing Projects

Chartrand Place, one of Vancouver’s new temporary modular housing projects to alleviate the city’s high rates of homelessness. (Image courtesy of PHS Community Services Society.)
Chartrand Place, one of Vancouver’s new temporary modular housing projects to alleviate the city’s high rates of homelessness. (Image courtesy of PHS Community Services Society.)

Vancouver has the most expensive housing market in Canada. A lack of affordable rental options contributes to the fact that more than 2,000 Vancouverites were found to be homeless in a recent study. Homelessness is a constant political hot-button issue in the city. The current mayor ran for office back in 2008 on a platform of eliminating homelessness by 2015. 

Since 2017, several temporary modular housing projects have gone up around Vancouver, with more on the way. The city’s goal is to build 600 units, which is part of the province’s plan to create 2,000 new units in total.

“Thanks to a strong partnership with the new British Columbia government, we’ve been able to house hundreds of people in a very short time,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said. “With hundreds of new temporary modular homes and permanent social housing set to open in the coming months, I’m confident we’ll make significant progress toward making sure that no one has to sleep outside at night in Vancouver.”

Alberta-based modular housing company Horizon North built the recent Chartrand Place in 90 days. The building has 39 units. Each one is 250 square feet with a bathroom and a kitchenette. Seven of them are wheelchair accessible.

“BC Housing has been extraordinarily supportive in pushing forward here,” said Rod Graham, Horizon North president and CEO. “They see what we see in terms of opportunity for becoming part of the solution for homelessness in this province. We certainly believe modular is a considerable tool to be used for time-expediency, quality and cost-certainty.”

Only time will tell how BC’s modular apartments will work out. Given the history of modular housing, the future is hopeful.

“There’s always housing required for different needs,” Baldesarra said.

Hopefully, modular housing will meet the needs of residents and the city.

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