February 16, 2016 Housing Action Coalition

Has Prefab Construction Finally Arrived in San Francisco?

Prefab ConstructionAdvances in technology have dramatically changed how people find information, get to work and even do their laundry. But one industry whose productivity has remained stagnant for decades is construction. But, as cities are pressured to provide more housing for growing populations, it’s become important to experiment with ways to increase building productivity and find methods that get housing out of the ground faster and at a lower cost. It looks like prefab, also called modular construction or factory-built housing (FBH), offers dramatic promise. SFHAC, SPUR and AIA-SF co-hosted a packed-house forum last week to hear an all-star panel explore the state of this new industry.

Panelists included:

  • Ken Lowney | Lowney Architecture
  • Taeko Takagi | Zeta Communities
  • Blair Allison | Cahill Contractors
  • Patrick Kennedy | Panoramic Interests

The event, moderated by Mark Hogan of OpenScope Studio, tantalized with promise, but also raised questions around the future of modular construction. A prefab project requires that all the most of the important decisions be made at the very beginning, with spot-on coordination along the way among all parties, said Mr. Lowney. But, a successfully coordinated partnership reaps large rewards at the end. For a 138-unit project Lowney designed in the Bayview, the team cut their hard costs by 20 percent and delivered the project in half the time, compared to typical on-site development.

The clear benefits of prefab are shortened timelines, reduced construction budgets, while still delivering a quality product, stated Ms. Takagi. Other less obvious benefits include a safer work environment and a greater diversity of gender and ages on the manufacturing floor. But Ms. Takagi, whose firm operates a FBH facility at an old Air Force base outside Sacramento, acknowledged that the industry is evolving quickly and learning from past mistakes. The only way to continue improvement is to build more of it. Improvements can be found in better advance training of general contractors, construction team integration, procurement methods and preparing for unexpected weather conditions during the stacking of the finished units at the job site.

Blair Allison, who has been on the ground for various FBH projects, touted its cost savings. But he stressed that challenges can arise when building units bigger than one-bedrooms, or when the project design becomes more creative and less standard.

One panelist known for fearless ingenuity in the housing world is Patrick Kennedy, a principal with Panoramic Interests. His company built the City’s first FBH micro-unit project, a 23-unit student housing building at 38 Harriet Street. Panoramic also recently leased out a 160 micro-unit building on Mission Street as student housing. Mr. Kennedy announced an exciting proposal to the audience to build a FBH project for the homeless, one of the City’s most intractable housing problems. Called the Micro-PAD, it would be based on stackable 45 feet by 8 feet modules that could be divided into twin 160-square-foot homes.  The steel-frame boxes are manufactured by a Polish company and come fully equipped with a bed, lighting, ventilation, small kitchen and a bathroom. Using the existing parking lot at 200 Hyde Street as an illustration, Mr. Kennedy said that Panoramic, given free land, could build a 85-foot mid-rise building 168 homes, renting each unit to the Mayor’s Office of Housing for $1,000 per month.

As the audience heard, FBH is not a perfect craft, yet. Prefab construction doesn’t work well for high-rises, it’s challenging to build units with multiple bedrooms and it’s still not fully embraced by the development community as a viable construction method. But as costs continue to explode and cities realize the need for innovative housing solutions, FBH becomes increasingly attractive. Let’s hope San Francisco can be an entrepreneur in this field, too.

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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