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

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Market-rate housing developers are increasingly gravitating to modular (aka off-site) construction as a strategy to improve building quality and lower development costs, and affordable housing providers are starting to follow. But if you’re a nonprofit affordable 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.

Granted, there is a large universe of published resources devoted to the subject of using modular construction to build housing more affordably. But as someone who has searched the keywords “affordable + modular” more than a few times since I started investigating whether modular construction can help affordable housing owners do more with scarce resources, I’ve found that lion’s share of these resources focus on spotting trends in the market-rate housing industry.

That leaves nonprofit owners to 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 just 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 practical knowledge of building deeply affordable housing off-site. But consultants who have experience using modular to develop rent-restricted affordable housing are scarce. (Other than me, I know of just one working in my region.)

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. As it happens, I have a genuine passion for sharing what I know about this topic. And since I don’t know where else to send people for information, I figure I might as well share what I know more widely. So I’m writing this guide.

As its title suggests, the purpose of this guide 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. 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).

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 making contingent investments that can’t be recouped. In other words, this guide addresses the issue of whether and why to build a modular project, not how to build one. 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 can 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 suggestions for future blog topics 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.