The Triple-Bottom-Line Impacts of Choosing Modular: Introduction

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By now, a lot of people have questions about modular (aka off-site) construction. Many players in the field will tell you that factory-based methods of producing buildings, long underutilized, are posed to disrupt the U.S. construction industry. Market-rate housing developers are gravitating to modular as market pressures force new strategies for lowering costs. And affordable housing providers, alert to modular’s promise of producing high-quality housing more quickly and cost-efficiently than onsite construction, are starting to follow.

But if you’re a nonprofit housing provider looking for practical answers about whether, why, and under what circumstances it makes sense to make the shift to modular, you may feel like the kid in the back of the classroom who never gets called on.

In the large universe of published resources—news stories, trade reports, scholarly articles, marketing blog posts—devoted to the subject of “affordable” modular construction, the lion’s share focus on spotting trends in the market-rate housing industry. (I know, because I’ve searched these keywords more than a few times since I started investigating whether modular construction can help affordable housing owners do more with scarce resources.) To the extent that resources addressing the information needs of nonprofit housing owners exist, they are needles in the proverbial information haystack.

When it comes to other information sources, nonprofit owners can seek the advice of consultants such as, well, me. As a construction management consultant to affordable housing providers, I help my clients make informed development decisions about precisely such matters as choosing what construction methods to use. And since I joined the development team of LISAH, a modular cohousing community for formerly homeless adults soon to break ground in North Portland, I’ve acquired some practical knowledge of building (deeply) affordable housing off-site. Granted, my plate is full now, but there are other consultants who have similar qualifications. I know of, well, one.

In my local community at least, there is a rising hunger for information about using modular construction to build affordable housing. And I’m guessing the scarcity of resources available to fill this need explains why, since word about LISAH started getting around, I’ve been giving out a lot of free advice.

I’m happy to share what I know about the subject, because I have a genuine passion for it. And since I’m already giving it away, and I don’t know where else to send people for information, I figure I might as well share what I know more widely. So, with some help from a communications pro, I’m writing this guide.

As the title “The Triple-Bottom-Line Impacts of Choosing Modular” may or may not suggest (my communications pro told me to keep it short), my intent is to address the information needs of the types of organizations I work with: mission-driven nonprofits that own and operate rent-restricted affordable housing serving low-income and very-low-income residents. Specifically, this guide will focus on the needs of owners who haven’t previously used modular and want to clearly understand its costs and benefits before committing to use it (and before making contingent early project investments that can’t be recouped). In other words, this guide addresses the question of whether and why to build a modular project, not how to build one.

Based on values and priorities that many of my client share, I’ll be focusing on the costs and benefits of using modular construction across both development and operational phases—and through a lens that filters for environmental and social impacts, as well as financial ones (aka the triple bottom line). I’ll do my best to provide reliable, evidence-based information, and to present it in a way that is as clear and concise as possible. I’ll answer questions I commonly hear from nonprofit owners, as well as questions they don’t always think to ask. 

My plan is to share a new installment every week or so, with five parts planned so far. I hope you’ll find these articles useful and pass them along—so that more affordable housing providers can stop waving their hands in the air and start having informed discussion about whether and why to make the shift to modular.

First up: How will using modular construction affect my project’s hard costs?

Have comments, corrections, or topical suggestions for future blog posts related to modular construction? I’d love to hear from you.

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