California is experiencing an affordable-housing crisis in which 97% of cities are not keeping pace with its population growth in creating housing. Only about 10% of the number of units to support inbound workers has been produced each year for nearly a decade. Cities across the state are struggling to find solutions. The challenges range from aggressive NIMBYism, Planning Commissions paralyzed by political opposition by an array of constituents, and dramatically rising wages in places like San Francisco and New York, where affluent tech workers are gobbling up every variety of housing. The urgency of the challenges has prompted the formation of a “YIMBY Coalition”, lobbying for relaxed restrictions on new development.

One solution gaining significant traction is producing modular housing. “If we don’t build housing differently, then no one has any housing,” says Rick Holliday, a Bay Area developer who has built a modular housing fabrication factory near San Francisco.

The technologies vary but generally involve simplifying construction through prefabricated apartment units or freestanding “tiny homes”, deployed in different ways for different uses.  The “Factory Built” modular methodology has a multitude of benefits. While modules are assembled at the factory, site work can begin concurrently, such as laying the foundation or prepping utility connections. This greatly decreases the time needed for total construction. Modular buildings are often completed 25-30% faster than conventional structures. Once the modules are ready, they are shipped to the site and fastened together. The final construction stage includes completing exterior systems such as cladding and roofing components and internal spaces like lobbies, stairwells, and elevator shafts. The finished building can take any form, from exposed industrial shipping containers to finished housing that’s indistinguishable from any site-built product. In general, this methodology has been shown to allow the completed product from a shovel in the ground to full completion in about 6 months. With actual all-in construction cost savings only in the +/- 10% range, time is the highest value to the developer or city.

The basic concept isn’t new. In 1624, Massachusetts settlers built homes out of prefabricated materials shipped from England. The pattern was repeated in Australia, Africa, and India as the British Empire shipped colonists and structures wide across the globe, according to “Prefab Architecture,” by Ryan E. Smith, a professor at the University of Utah.

The challenge is both political and functional. Housing across the entire spectrum of affordability must be produced through a variety of modes. Political will must shift to support streamlining approvals based on existing zoning and design guidelines, removing the option of neighborhood objection if the building is designed “as of right”. Additionally, cities must shift their focus toward housing, mostly at the lower end of the spectrum, where for-profit developers are few. The homelessness in most major cities is also a by-product of this dramatic housing shortage, as well as supportive services that are lacking. Many of these problems will take many years to overcome, but modular housing can offer more expedient ways to solve some of them.

1-San Jose Mercury News. “Housing shortage: New report shows how California cities and counties stack up”.   February 1st , 2018