Modular Buildings, Powered by Novel Technologies, Present an Opportunity To Combat the Housing Crisis Affordably and Sustainably

Jun 15, 2023 4:10 PM ET
Two people standing together next to components
Kit Switch Founders Armelle Coutant and Candice Delamarre stand next to their modular kitchen units. Image courtesy of Kit Switch

By Shanti Pless, Senior Building Energy Research Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Nationwide, it is increasingly difficult for families to find affordable housing opportunities. Once considered an issue isolated to major cities such as New York and San Francisco, the problem has become widespread, with Freddie Mac estimating that the nation is short 3.8 million housing units, a deficit that doubled from 2012 to 2019. As the housing supply struggles to keep up with demand, prices and rents soar.

This shortage is driven by a variety of factors amplified by the pandemic, but also predating it. Income inequality, construction material costs, and complex building development regulations all contribute to the lack of affordable housing options. Housing and construction costs in major cities have hit record highs, including an outrageous example in San Francisco where the cost of a public restroom hit $1.7 million.

Not only is the construction of new buildings expensive, it also carries a large carbon footprint. Annually, building construction accounts for 2.3 GT of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, driven by raw material processing and building operations. Construction also accounts for a significant amount of waste generation, water consumption, and harmful air emissions.

The climate crisis requires immediate, scalable action to reduce GHG emissions. However, if these efforts add to the cost of homes, the affordable housing crisis will further expand. Thus, the U.S. is faced with the paradox of having to lower the cost of buildings while simultaneously reducing their emissions. Furthermore, these homes cannot be built in a way that sacrifices their quality, risking the dignity of their residents.

Recently, modular construction has emerged as a major opportunity to tackle this challenge. Modular construction allows a building to be manufactured off-site in prefabricated sections. These modules are then transported to the project site, where they are assembled in place of conventional construction methods. The resulting benefits include a smaller environmental footprint, shorter construction time, and lower costs.

Modular projects allow for faster development because all aspects of construction do not have to occur in the same location and can thus happen separately, in parallel. These prefabricated components can then be assembled and combined, a much more efficient process. Companies like Pre Framing Corp are able to construct building walls in this manner, a process which they claim allows for development to be expedited by a factor of ten. These various prefabricated solutions can be combined to let the time savings accumulate.

Prefabricated components can also be developed with a reduced carbon footprint in mind. Companies like Blokable are able to cut GHG emissions from multi-family housing development by 60%. They achieve this by fully electrifying the modular components, incorporating energy recovery ventilation, and utilizing energy-efficient design features.

Modular designs are not limited to new building construction; they can convert existing buildings into new residences. Some existing non-residential buildings may simply require the addition of interior features to become habitable. Companies like Kit Switch offer modular kitchens, which can be installed into existing buildings as part of the process of repurposing commercial properties for residential purposes. By avoiding the construction of new buildings, these strategies reduce cost, emissions, and time required.

Prefabricated solutions offer an affordable, sustainable mean of combating the housing crisis, without sacrificing quality. Future residents should not expect to live in substandard conditions. As we aggressively look to meet our housing challenges, we must keep in mind that families will be calling these buildings home, and we must ensure they’re as good, if not better, than other, traditional options. And with the excellent technologies and strategies emerging today, this is becoming an exciting reality.