Modular Construction and the Housing Industry’s Efficiency Problem


Most of us, if we needed a new car, wouldn’t hire a crew of engineers and fabricators to design and build one from scratch. So why do we think differently about designing and constructing buildings? Regardless of the answer, it’s clear that we do—and that expectations around customization reflect just part of the way standard approaches to building construction differ from other production models.

Unlike most other goods, buildings are constructed mostly outdoors, often in challenging weather conditions that can slow work and degrade materials. They are built on site, wherever they are needed. And each project contracts its own workforce from a local labor pool. In short, while other industries have adopted factory-production methods to reduce cost and waste and to improve quality, the construction industry still produces buildings much as it did 100 years ago—with relatively little gain in efficiency.

In fairness, rules that apply to production of cars and other goods don’t apply to production of apartment complexes. (Among the more obvious factors working against streamlining, centralizing, and standardizing building production: Buildings are extremely large. Their designs must adapt to widely varying site conditions. They are highly costly, and they have complex financing structures.) Still, one has to wonder: when it comes to moving the housing industry toward greater efficiency, is a double-wide factory the best we can hope for?

As a person who manages construction of affordable housing developments for a living, I care about that question. So, two years ago, I set out to find an answer. I wanted to know what options existed to use factory-production methods—better known as modular construction—to produce affordable housing at lower cost and higher quality. Beginning this week, I will be posting updates from my ongoing explorations in modular construction to this blog.

Up first: a brief look at what modular construction is, how it is being used today, why I got involved in learning about it, and how I’m collaborating with affordable multifamily housing development teams to put it to use.

Jenn Sharp is a senior construction project manager at HDC. You can find her full bio and contact information here.