The United States faces a formidable national housing crisis. Since the Great Recession beginning in 2008, more and more people are moving away from home ownership and into rental economies. This increased demand, coupled with stagnant middle and lower class wages, has led to an immense shortage of affordable housing units for those households. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach 2014” publication claims that “for every 100 extremely low income renter households, there are just 31 affordable and available units.” This number is staggering. It places an immense importance on the development of new affordable housing units over the next fifty years, especially in large cities like New York and San Francisco, where the problem is even worse. In attempting to meet this massive need for affordable housing, new strategies will need to be explored, because the “business as usual” model is clearly broken.
One possible solution to this crisis could lie in the utilization of prefabricated, modular living units. Structures utilizing such a design were first proposed during the Japan-led Metabolist movement of the 1960s. Notable projects such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower aggregated large numbers of small inhabitable pods around a central vertical core containing utilities, amenities, and means of circulation. While this Metabolist architecture may seem a bit too out there for most Americans’ tastes, the U.S. did see the proliferation of prefabricated architecture in the last half of the twentieth century: the mobile “trailer” home. A long time choice for low-income rural households, the traditional mobile home manages to stay so affordable by utilizing off site prefabrication that takes advantage of economies of scale. While it seems unlikely that any designer could ever support a push for more of these mobile homes, their success does give hope to new ideas of prefabricated housing.
A 2014 report by McKinsey & Company titled “Tackling the world’s affordable housing challenge” points to reducing construction and development costs as one of four main strategies crucial to solving this issue. Off site prefabrication has been proven to be much cheaper than conventional construction in many scenarios, especially in urban environments. A second of their points lies in improved maintenance and operations for housing. By utilizing a modular design, repairs become easy. All units are identical, and one could even go so far as to completely replace an entire unit in the event of a kitchen fire or similar event. Beyond the cost and time saving benefits of offsite prefabrication, utilizing a modular design allows for structures to adapt to changing needs and quickly adapt if demand rises suddenly. A recent project by Garrison Architects in partnership with the New York City Office of Emergency Management developed prefab housing pods that could be utilized for emergency housing in the event of another Hurricane Sandy scale disaster. Finally, the establishment of large housing factories has the potential to revitalize a struggling population in many large coastal cities. With large spending cuts in recent years, the U.S. Navy has dramatically cut back on its shipbuilding operations. These effects have been felt most strongly in the working class families whose members were employed at shipyards. While not identical, fabricating building units does share many similarities with shipbuilding, in both the techniques used and the necessity for large, centralized construction facilities. Prefab building construction could potentially create thousands of new jobs for those whose skillsets or tendencies don’t match well with other fields like conventional construction.
Many are already seeing the benefits of these types of structures, with several under construction in New York City. Adopting this new housing model will be neither quick nor easy, but could yield great results. The utilization of modular, prefab housing has the potential to drastically change the American housing market, potentially solving many of the issues of the current affordable housing crisis.
Guest Contributor: Dillon Harding