Home AEC The Great Promise of Modular Construction: Can Factory-Built Homes Help Solve Seattle’s...

The Great Promise of Modular Construction: Can Factory-Built Homes Help Solve Seattle’s Housing Crisis?

Seattle, Puget Sound, Wittman Estes, King, Whitley Evergreen of Marysville, Shoreline, Washington, Blokable, Edmonds, Compass Housing Alliance,
Imaged Credit: Blokable

By Meghan Hall

In major metropolitan cities across the United States — Seattle included — construction costs are on the rise, forcing developers to find cost-saving alternatives in order to make their projects profitable. The affordability, speed and flexibility afforded by prefabricated construction has also made the process popular with officials around the Puget Sound region keen on combating increasing demand for housing in the area.

“Using technology and adopting a manufacturing approach to housing is where Seattle needs to go for the high volume and accelerated timelines that will get us ahead of the housing shortage,” explained Matt Wittman, founder of Wittman Estes, a local architecture and design firm. “The industry needs to standardize and productize basic elements of construction, such as bathrooms, kitchens, stair cores — these are the building blocks of housing.

“Architects can then be free to compose these elements and focus on shared outdoor space, materiality and the experiential quality of the space,” he added.

Modular construction involves the factory-production or pre-engineering of building units off-site and are produced via assembly line under controlled plant conditions. The units are then delivered to the construction site and assembled there. The standardization of the construction process means lower costs, reduced construction schedules, greater flexibility and the overall reduction of construction waste.

The advantages have not been lost on officials throughout the region — King County announced its decision in August 2018 to purchase 29 modular units in order to provide housing for roughly 100 people. The first project is a modular concrete shelter with nine dormitory units and eight beds per unit, which will aid those with behavioral health needs and homelessness. The second project, composed of micro dwelling units, include fully permitted homes and are designed for those looking for affordable housing. Combined, the contract with Whitley Evergreen of Marysville — the modular manufacturer — will cost around $4.5 million.

A third project, in collaboration with the City of Shoreline, would produce between 80 to 100 housing units, although no manufacturer has yet been selected.

“Housing today is built essentially the same way it was over 100 years ago,” said Wittman. “It’s time we use technology to move forward. Modular construction is the first step to bringing us closer to the dream of high quality, mass produced housing.”

But for some experts in the field, modular construction is exactly that: a first step and not a solution. While the advantages of prefabricated buildings are clear, Blokable’s Co-Chief Executive Officer Nelson Del Rio was careful to consider the larger context surrounding Seattle’s housing crisis. Blokable is a Washington-based developer that specializes in the delivery of modular housing units for residential, retail and mixed-use projects.

“Modular is an incremental solution until we address the root causes of the housing crisis — extremely tight supply and the high cost to develop more housing,” said Del Rio. “You could crank out modular units until the cows come home, but they won’t sell, because many property owners in high-cost areas like Seattle simply do not have the incentive to develop valuable land for the lower return that comes from affordable housing.”

According to Del Rio, Modular exemplifies the problem of more traditional development: Prefabrication, while it may cut costs, does little to streamline the timescale of construction as a whole. Modular construction, to Del Rio, is a solid first step but not a complete solution. In order for the housing crisis to be tackled, Del Rio argues that a new development paradigm needs to become mainstream in order to increase community equity and affordable housing for people of all ages and income levels.

“Modular and prefab have been hyped as construction innovations, and perhaps because of that they have been stereotyped as solutions for either the low-end of the market, or as strategies for upper-income people building ‘carbon neutral’ smart homes or off-the-grid homesteads,” said Del Rio. “Since the housing crisis touches so many, the future of development needs to encompass much more than that.”

Despite the difficulties developers must face in confronting the housing crisis, Blokable is also forging ahead with prefabricated building processes in its partnerships with city agencies to deliver affordable housing across the region. The self-performing developer has taken up “housing development as a service” as its tagline in its efforts to work with landowners, housing service providers and community organizations in the Puget Sound area. Currently, Blokable is working with city officials in Edmonds, Wash., and Compass Housing Alliance, a non–profit, to construct a three-story, 64-unit housing complex composed of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. The land is currently owned by the Edmonds Lutheran Church and the development. The development will soon be owned and operated by Compass.

“You have to start from the principle that home ownership is the foundation of a strong economy and a just and humane society, and that it should be as affordable and accessible as possible,” said Del Rio of how Blokable seeks to operate in the region. “To achieve that vision, it’s more than just another roof over people’s heads. It’s what you build, how you build it and who owns it.”