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Supply Chain 4 min read

Can prefab buildings solve the world's housing crisis?

Can prefab buildings solve the world's housing crisis?

A new market is growing in luxury prefab houses, and there's no reason – on paper – that the evolving tech can't be used in cities.

The Occam's razor approach to a housing shortage is to build more housing, but of course, that's easier said than done. Even ignoring the need to find land, expand public infrastructure, secure permits, etc., the physical work of building housing – especially apartment housing – still takes a ton of time, effort, money, and materials to come to fruition. Prefab housing – housing that is constructed piecemeal in a factory, and then shipped to the building site for assembly – seems to erase many of these issues, but introduces a few new ones.

Post-fad prefab

This recent uptick in interest isn't prefab's first time in the spotlight, in fact, prefab as a trend seems to come and go in waves, with a history that could stretch back to pre-agricultural society (if you want to count tents). But the more modern history of prefab housing includes everything from home-kits sold by Sears department stores from 1908 to 1940, tower blocks built in communist countries like the former U.S.S.R. states and China, and McDonalds restaurants. However, the largest prefab market today is mobile homes, which – far from the trailer parks that may spring to mind – has adopted more traditional housing aesthetics.

The newest trend in prefab is luxury, with million-dollar homes being designed and built by firms like Plant Prefab and Turkle Design. Taking advantage of advances in 3D-printing, materials sciences, and smart-home technology, contemporary prefab housing is reliable and environmentally friendly. Prefabs by come installed with solar panels, and are constructed in a special insulating polymer for passive climate control. In short, prefab is a fast and easy way to build the sort of housing we need in order to combat climate change.

Pre-built this city

Like most technological developments, there's no reason that advances in luxury prefab shouldn't also soon appear in down-river markets. Cities experiencing housing shortages like New York and Chicago have already built or expressed interest in using prefab apartment buildings to quickly shore up affordable housing stock.

The benefits offered from prefab construction even seem to be multiplied when used for apartments rather than houses. Environmental benefits are compounded by higher density, and modularity ideally begets scalability. The same scalability and volume should make prefab construction and ownership even more affordable. While the association of prefab apartments with former socialist states isn't exactly blemish-free – one problem they famously didn't have was homelessness.

Mobile groans

As great a solution as prefab apartments are, they don't come without their pain points. For all the money saved on construction, new costs are incurred from shipping. For 40-unit housing order from Plant Prefab, each module of a building can cost up to $15 per mile to ship by truck. And in big cities like New York, where an influx of delivery vehicles from Amazon online retailers is already causing massive traffic headaches, the idea prospect of waiting for a whole apartment building to be shipped into the city can seem like a nightmare.

And while faster and simpler to construct, prefab housing isn't exactly foolproof yet. Because the current techniques and technologies are still new, many construction firms don't have that much working experience assembling prefab housing. Module deliveries being affected by delays, arriving in the wrong order, or arriving defective can cause cascading delays through the supposedly faster workflow. And, ironically considering their modularity, prefab housing isn't all that customizable, meaning they could run up against zoning and other building-code violations without an easy way around them.

For cities to find the best places to build, and how to coordinate and track deliveries so that modules arrive on-time and in order, we offer a range of location-powered infrastructure tools. Because, when push comes to shove on issues of housing shortages and homelessness – and new, green housing must be built, prefab could be an attractive offer for cities around the world.

Noah Waldman

Noah Waldman

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