Volunteers of America National Services and Wells Fargo Explore Innovative Design in Affordable Housing    

6 min read

Techniques For Cutting Costs and Speeding Construction 

3D printing, shipping container homes, repurposing existing buildings and off-site volumetric construction are among the cutting-edge construction and design techniques being studied and deployed by the Volunteers of America National Service’s (VOANS) Innovative Dwellings team.  

VOANS’ internal think tank, dubbed Innovative Dwellings, is funded by a three-year, $3 million grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation. The grant, awarded in 2020, empowers VOANS to build at least 125 housing units for homeless veterans using innovative construction techniques. The overarching goal of innovative design is to speed the process of building affordable units while keeping costs in check. Veterans housed under the program also will receive job training. 

“The approach with our grants in housing supply, and generally across the whole housing affordability philanthropic portfolio, is to invest our dollars in programs, projects and approaches that are testing new things,” says Amy Anderson, of Wells Fargo Foundation. 

Anderson adds that these projects also can often be built quickly, which is critical when working to house the homeless. 

“When we talk about people who are living on the streets and sidewalks, speed is so important,” she says. 

Hoping to Spread Innovative Design Ideas to Other Builders 
Lee Goldstein, director of National Housing Initiatives for VOANS, says his team is researching a wide range of innovative design techniques that can cut costs and speed construction of affordable housing for homeless veterans. Many of the techniques also are more sustainable environmentally. 

“After the three-year grant period, we hope to bring back these ideas to Wells Fargo and hopefully scale up and apply them to the rest of our pipeline,” says Goldstein.

Anderson, of Wells Fargo, says the research of the Innovative Dwellings team will likely be of interest to other developers throughout the affordable housing space. 

“Many players in the sector are interested in seeing whether new and different construction techniques are a means of achieving quicker and less expensive production,” she says. 

The grant has enabled the VOA network—comprised of both VOANS and local VOA affiliates across the nation—to more aggressively address homeless housing needs, especially for veterans. The projects range from managing a hotel conversion in Austin, TX to a cluster of shipping container accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Raleigh- 

Durham, NC. ADUs are a large share of the Innovative Dwellings portfolio. Some are stand-alone ADUs, and others are arranged in clusters. In two California projects, the ADUs are stacked to make multifamily units. 

Modular Construction 
The ADUs are often built off-site in factories. With modular construction, whole sections of a structure are constructed off-site in a factory. With panelized modular construction, the wall panels are constructed in a factory setting and then transported to the site.  

“Panelized is a Lego-type of building,” explains Rance Graham-Bailey, program manager with VOANS and a member of the Innovative Dwellings team. “You build and standardize the parts in a factory, and they get shipped to the site.” 

These units also often use structurally insulated panels—known as SIPs—which are highly energy efficient. SIPs consist of two pieces of oriented  

strand board with some sort of insulated foam in the center. They are constructed with pressure and glue. Since they have no studs, they are better insulated. Walls made with studs allow more air to get through. 

The thickness of SIP walls can be adjusted to increase or decrease their level of insulation, known as the R-value. In Minnesota, VOANS partnered with YardHomesMN to build veterans villages of volumetric modular units constructed with SIPs. YardHomesMN specializes in compact, prefabricated dwellings. 

“One of the benefits (of SIPS) is it is a more energy-efficient wall assembly, which is especially relevant in Minnesota,” says Jamie Stolpestad, partner with YardHomesMN. 

Stacking ADUs to Make Multifamily Units 
In Los Angeles at the Ballington project, the Innovative Dwellings program is supporting a VOA Los Angeles effort to build eight infill ADUs adjacent to a 270-unit Single-Room Occupancy. The ADUs will be stacked in two-unit structures with four units stacked over another four units. Another project in North Hollywood will consist of a first phase of multifamily ADUs that house 20 families, with at least ten available to veterans and their families. 

Other projects in VOANS’ Innovative Dwellings portfolio use pre-cast concrete – a method where concrete is poured in a reusable mold and cured off-site from a project, then transported to the construction site. 

Innovative Dwellings has deployed several iterations of ADUs as part of its endeavor. In Minnesota, they launched a project where they will help to construct and fund ADUs for veterans in the backyards of single-family homes. 

“It is about speed and also recognizing the importance of community and making sure the population has access to services,” says Anderson, of Wells Fargo Foundation. 

The VOANS team also has partnered with other players in the housing space in the communities where they seek to build. In Raleigh-Durham, they partnered with the Durham Community Land Trustees, as well as VOA Chesapeake & Carolinas. 

The Innovative Dwellings unit of VOANS is studying multiple new technologies to investigate how they might be deployed in affordable housing. They are looking into 3D printing but have found it to be cost prohibitive at this juncture.  

“The 3D printing is a huge boost in terms of sustainability and the impact on the environment, especially its lack of waste in terms of construction,” says Goldstein. “The question with 3D in general is how can we take that technology and make it affordable.” 

“There is significant upfront investment in terms of getting the printers,” explains Graham-Bailey. 

Shipping container homes also have limitations in that they are expensive to transport more than a few hundred miles away. If containers can be found closer to a construction site, it cuts costs significantly. 

3D printed units and shipping containers also require build-out of their interiors, which raises the units’ costs. 

Leveraging Zoning Laws to Meet Housing Needs 
The VOANS grant from Wells Fargo runs through October 2023. By the end of the grant period, the program is currently on track to have 62 units completed and 15 units in the planning stages with 48 remaining units to be identified. Since 2015, the Wells Fargo Foundation has awarded over $31 million in grants to provide housing for veterans. 

Brigitte Ogne, program manager at VOANS, says it’s not just design elements that are being studied and deployed in the Innovative Dwellings unit. They are looking at zoning laws to see how best to optimize land-use for affordable housing. 

“Innovative Dwellings is pairing VOANS’ longstanding expertise in affordable housing development with the forward-thinking construction methodologies of small-scale modular builders specializing in “tiny homes” and accessory dwelling units,” she says. “Through identifying progressive zoning laws, properties with infill potential, and innovative construction methods, the Innovative Dwellings program has been able to create much-needed affordable housing units in locations where traditional methods of large-scale housing development would be impractical.”  

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.