The Path to affordable housing

Impressive design solutions are never easy at any cost. But they are more likely to be successful with a generous budget. Designing the next Taj Mahal is made easier when you have an emperor’s wealth to work with. Creating beauty on a shoestring budget is another matter. Knowing that architects often struggle with the noble goal of bringing high-quality design to a larger audience, how does one create attractive yet affordable housing?

One technique gaining momentum is the use of prefabricated building elements. This can include an entire house, commonly referred to as modular construction, or it can be done with prefabricated components integrated into a traditional site-built dwelling. Examples of the latter are structural insulated panels known as SIPs. 

By mass-producing significant portions of a house in a factory under climate-controlled conditions, the final price of the residence often can be considerably reduced due to economies of scale, utilization of in-house advanced construction technologies, and the ability to work year-round. Beyond the cost savings, because modular housing units typically are built to withstand highway transportation and crane placement, they can be structurally superior to traditional stick-built homes. 

In addition, using factory-provided components could reduce total construction time, translating into lower overhead, shorter construction loan durations and faster turnover of inventory. An added benefit with factory-constructed houses is that the plant tradesmen can be grouped in teams, which work side by side on a continual basis. This avoids the problems that can occur when doing every project with a different set of subcontractors.

Builders are increasingly attracted to this prefabricated construction approach because it mitigates the difficulties associated with a shortage of skilled laborers. Typically, the only tasks required on-site are the foundation, site utilities, decks, porches and landscaping.

Working against the clear advantages described here, however, is the public’s perception that modular or prefabricated housing is synonymous with inexpensive mobile homes. In reality, these two industries have very little in common. The truth is that any level of quality can be applied to modular construction and the configuration of floor plans is theoretically unlimited. 

Maximum cost savings, however, generally occur when the standardization of dimensions and mass production of components is incorporated throughout. For this reason, many of the models shown in company catalogs or websites depict rectangular boxes with uninspiring room layouts, which is why the designer’s input is so important to promote this concept’s exposure to society. 

By fitting standard pieces together in innovative arrangements, the architect leverages low-cost construction technologies with unique design solutions to achieve more affordable housing. This can be thought of as designing from a kit of parts; no two solutions need be the same, but the building elements all come from the same box.

And contrary to popular belief, many of the modular home companies will gladly work with an architect to modify their standard plans and elevations. A Canadian company has taken this concept to the point of marketing a series of modular houses designed by a well-known architect as its signature “designer” product line.

To achieve a high level of creativity within the cost constraints of the affordable housing market requires a new approach to building fundamentals. Taking advantage of prefabricated modular elements is one way to rethink the housing paradigm. If done intelligently, we can maximize cost efficiency without sacrificing high standards of construction. Through such efforts we may well reach our collective goal of bringing high-quality design to a larger audience. ?