I believe that we have reached a tipping point in our industry; our present method of delivery can no longer keep pace with the enormous demand for affordable housing. We are seeing shortages of expertise in every field that contributes—from skilled trades; to professionals in architecture, engineering, and finance; to those who represent jurisdictional authorities—in the delivery of affordable housing. The demand is so great that time is now another factor in short supply.
My favorite comparison for our industry’s current method of delivery is that of the auto industry. When we buy a car, they don’t come out and assemble it in our driveway or garage, it comes already put together, ready for use. When we build a house, even though that house design may have been built before, it always is built as a “one-off,” one at a time. Here lies the challenge that has been created. Cars that are built one at a time are called Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Rolls-Royce.
We are attempting to deliver affordable housing much the same way we deliver homes that may cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Over the past several years, we have nibbled away at cost and time within our conventional system. Innovations such as panelizing building components, plumbing systems, engineered wood components, and truss framing from recycled content have helped to lower costs and expedite the time to completion. Contractors and owners have become more sophisticated in their timing and the logistics of commodity purchasing and delivery in bulk, often warehousing an entire project’s components in advance. As a complement to that approach, we architects seek to simplify a building’s program to its essence, embracing repetition and redundancy of components to ensure economy of assembly.
Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry by popularizing the assembly line process for automobile manufacturing and, at the same time, ushered in an industrial revolution that put thousands to work and a gateway to middle-class prosperity. He did this by breaking down the automobile assembly process into specific tasks redundantly performed over and over again, and designed automobiles that were simple to construct, economical for purchase by those who made them, and beautiful.
I believe that the single-most disruptive approach to containing development costs is to embrace what Ford did for auto manufacturing and apply it to the construction of affordable housing. Manufacturing housing in a controlled, off-site environment solves many of the challenges that we face today. With respect to our shortage of skilled labor, skills required to perform repetitive tasks on an assembly line can be learned in less time and will provide opportunities to employ more people than the eight to 10 years of experience necessary to train skilled carpenters, plumbers, or electricians. In a controlled interior environment, work can proceed without delay due to weather, ensuring continuous assembly, employment, and quality control. Logistics for manufacturing and delivery require a supply-chain level of management that can identify and control costs of materials that take supply and demand into consideration. Finally, the time required from assembly to delivery of the finished product can be reduced considerably compared with the present conventional method.
We have been working with a real pioneer in this industry for the last two years, assisting in the development of a modular construction prototype. Todd Tober is president of Tober Building Co., and his background and experience in both the construction and development of affordable housing, as well as the challenges outlined above, served as inspiration to investigate an alternative to the status quo. Our latest project with Tober, who will develop, construct, and manufacture the apartment modules that he calls “volume elements” is a mixed-use garage, retail, and apartment development in Akron, Ohio. What is unique about Tober’s approach is his use of a tubular steel frame and steel construction to assemble these modules off-site. This type of construction allows us to build the apartment component without a secondary structural frame. The volume elements each act much like building blocks, which allow us to build higher than the five stories or so that conventional wood construction limits us to today.
Tober’s goal is to deliver a finished product for close to $100 per square foot of vertical construction, which is $40 to $50 per square foot less than Midwestern construction costs for a similar three- or four-story development. In addition to the cost savings attributed to this assembly method, time saved in the schedule can be realized, because while early site work is underway, volume elements will be in production with delivery scheduled immediately upon the completion of this phase.
Added to this approach is the creation of new opportunities for employment; the training of a workforce that will benefit economically from what I trust will be a sustainable industry for years to come. Tober’s next project will be to break ground on a 350,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Seville, Ohio, that will require the employment of 300 people. He’s creating an affordable solution to a market demand and putting people to work, just like Henry Ford did in the early 1900s.