Modular Makes Its Mark

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8 min read

World Homes joins companies innovatively addressing construction costs    

More than a half century ago, in what would become the major theme exhibition for the 1967 Montreal World Exposition, Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie created a 12-story urban neighborhood on the bank of the Saint Lawrence River out of modular, precast concrete blocks lifted into place by cranes. The project was called Habitat ’67, and it aimed to show how new materials and building techniques could be combined with design imagination to produce attractive, efficient and desirable housing at affordable prices. The project may be considered both a success and a failure – a success because it has become an architectural landmark recognized around the world, and a failure because it never inspired the wave of affordable housing through mechanized construction Safdie envisioned.

Only now is the tantalizing promise of Habitat ’67 and its few progenies beginning to be realized. With the continuing rise in the costs of land and materials, and the shortage of qualified construction workers challenging the affordable housing industry, one of the most dynamic and significant trends is prefabrication of as much of the building process as possible.

The Frontier Out West
While the percentage of modularly-constructed buildings is still small, several innovative companies are making an impact on the multifamily residential industry. Many of the most active and prominent firms are headquartered and building out west. Among the biggest names are: ATCO Structures and Logistics of Pocatello, ID; Factory OS of Vallejo, CA; Guerdon Modular Buildings and Nashua Builders, both of Boise ID; Katerra of Menlo Park, CA (See story in January 2018 issue of TCA); and RAD Urban of Oakland, CA.

“There are basically two kinds of modular construction,” explains Caleb Roope, president and CEO of The Pacific Companies, based in Eagle, ID, and specializing in multifamily and charter school projects throughout the western states. “There is volumetric modular, which is a complete rectangular box, assembled in a factory and shipped by truck to the construction site. And there is panelized modular, in which the manufactured components are packed and sent from the factory, to be assembled at the site.” There are advantages to each method and Roope has been involved with more than a dozen modular projects, especially with Guerdon Modular. “We’ve worked with them extensively and have a long history,” he notes.

Architects and Developers Form WoHo
In the East, World Homes (WoHo) of Boston, MA, is an intriguing collaboration between forward-thinking, academically-oriented architects and experienced, multifamily builders that, according to its website, is “building a pioneering new vision of incredible, affordable housing,” using “innovative, patented technologies to build fantastic homes for less money and in a fraction of the time of traditional construction.”

Anton Garcia-Abril and Débora Mesa are two Spanish-born and trained architects—he a professor at MIT and she at Georgia Tech after five years at MIT—who together in 2000 founded Ensamble Studio, headquartered in Madrid, to explore innovative approaches to architectural and urban spaces, and the technologies that build them. Two years ago, they joined forces with Lawrence H. “Larry” Curtis and Jared Curtis to form World Homes (WoHo). Larry is president and managing partner of Winn Development of Boston, with architecture degrees from Cooper Union and Harvard. His son Jared is a Cornell-trained architect, broker and developer who is responsible for WoHo’s business development and strategic objectives. Jared met his future partner when Anton came to lecture at Cornell. Ensamble currently operates a 30-person office.

The idea behind the new company, says Jared, was to “face difficult problems with a creative new mindset,” and “transform great research into something viable for the affordable housing industry.” The proprietary technology that forms the foundation of WoHo has been under development for more than a decade.

“WoHo manufactures building systems,” Jared elaborates. “Fully integrated building elements that are prefabricated and prewired. They are flat-packed and shipped to a job site, where they are assembled with a small crane and ready for residents in practically no time. When typical contractors build, they order a million pieces of material and put them together bit-by-bit. We eliminate 99 percent of that. The DNA of our technology is reinforced concrete frames at a wood price point. – stronger, more comfortable, soundproof and fireproof. We’ve been working with Suffolk, the largest construction company in the region, which has advanced and validated our techniques.”

“We didn’t invent the idea of modular construction,” Larry says. “But what we did was look at alternative methods of construction, and what we found was enormous opportunities in these ideas.” Bringing in Anton and Débora’s innovations and expertise made the enterprise viable. Though Winn is not an investor in the company, it is utilizing WoHo’s design and construction methodology, according to Larry. He characterizes the company as “a developer-led, architect-coordinated design-build firm that can deliver product at a price point that has become essential to the marketplace,” and stresses that “Anton and Débora are cofounders and equal partners.”

Focus on Workforce Housing
“WoHo is really focused on middle-income, workforce housing,” Larry comments. “As a developer, I know we’ve been frustrated by our ability to do middle-income housing when we’re competing for prime sites, prime neighborhoods and viable urban locations with developers who want to build luxury housing, and the numbers don’t work. This is a serious effort and serious financial commitment to try to meaningfully address better ways to build middle-income housing. We either have to rely on substantial government subsidies or deliver product at a lower cost, but not lower quality.” Larry feels that advanced modular construction technology will have a strong tie-in to Opportunity Zones.

For Jared, the key phrase is manufactured housing. “What does that mean in the 21st century? Understanding housing means asking what makes people thrive. What do they want? How do government programs work? How do you make living spaces more comfortable?

“The most exciting part is the manufactured side. We’ve developed a lot of incredible technologies for every other industry except building, such as robotic welding and materials handling for automobiles and other heavy manufacturing. So, we’re just at the beginning for the construction industry. Digital software has played a big role. We’re also employing data analytics to keep workers safe and productive. That idea comes from modern factory technology. There are enormous benefits to utilizing it in a controlled factory environment.”

Studies have validated the efficiency of producing construction components in factories as opposed to on-site, as well as the lower accident rates for workers. There is significantly less materials wastage and less unproductive time for employees. Site workers can be trained for factory jobs. The hottest and coldest months outside can often be avoided, allowing older individuals to remain on the job. And as Jared points out, “Getting more projects built means we’re also creating new on-site construction jobs, instead of letting lots remain vacant, with worse uses.”

Modular construction is “producing three huge pools of employment that otherwise would not exist,” Larry states. “We’re creating jobs in factories, construction technology is a new and growing industry, and all of this requires administrative support.“

WoHo is currently building in the greater Boston area, where, Jared says, “There is such an acute need that that’s where we’re hitting the ground.” Expansion plans include New York, Washington, DC and the Northeast Corridor. “But our product can also be flat-packed into standard-sized shipping containers, so the sky’s the limit. We have the scalability to do one project or ten projects, and we can build for ourselves and third-parties.”

A Viable Trend
Larry concedes, “This won’t replace everything. But if someone wants to build middle-income housing, we’re confident this will be a prevalent method to meet clear market needs.”

From his West Coast perspective, Roope says, “I see this as a viable trend, but not taking over. Right now, we’re seeing about 3,000 to 4,000 units of production capacity a year. California alone is running a deficit of 100,000 [affordable] homes a year. This is one possible solution, but it is still a fledgling industry that still has to develop capacity and the human capital.”

By that, he is referring to the learning curve facing all facets of the industry. “It is not yet ubiquitous nor is there yet a depth of knowledge. Developers don’t always understand how to go about it. Architects and engineers don’t yet always know how to design buildings that are friendly to the modular process. But designed correctly, you could see a 20 to 30 percent reduction in cost and schedule. If we can gear up on that, we really can create a new industry.”

Story Contacts:
Larry Curtis, lcurtis@winnco.com
Jared Curtis, jared@worldhomes.com
Anton Garcia-Abril, ensamble@mit.edu
Débora Mesa, ensamble@ensamble-studio.com
Caleb Roope, calebr@tpchousing.com