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Does off-site construction equal more compromises?

We have been talking about prefabricated and modular buildings for so long that it’s easy to think it might never happen. (Here’s a related post that I wrote back in 2015.) There are also lots of groups that have tried and failed. Perhaps the most high profile is the bankruptcy of off-site construction company Katerra, which had raised some $2 billion in funding, but for whatever reason(s) couldn’t figure things out.

That said, I’m starting to get the feeling that change might actually be underway in our industry. Over the last few months we’ve been talking about startups like Nabr. But there are many others, including Factory OS, which has been quietly building affordable housing in California (presumably far away from here). To date, they have completed 10 buildings and over 1,200 units, and they have another 24 or so buildings in the pipeline.

This feels promising to me. And I think it’s being aided by our current environment — costs are way up and people are desperately searching for efficiencies. But if this is really going to transform our industry, I think we’re going to need to be willing to make some sacrifices. Standardization and efficiency likely means making some concessions around design and overall specificity. Not every project can be custom, as is generally the case today.

That likely means that cities and communities will also need to become more forgiving when it comes to urban design guidelines. Could you please step your building back right here and follow this oblique angle that lines up with this important historic datum line? Nope, sorry, can’t. Our production line can’t accommodate that sort of change. Would you like the most affordable housing possible with today’s means or would you like a custom design?

1 Comment so far

  1. doug pollard

    Brandon your comment about the oblique angle made me chuckle, While sitting on the urban design committee in Ottawa I discovered they had one running from a veterans cemetery to the peace tower and I witnessed the limbo-like contortions and distortions of one building that was in its path in an effort to get behind and below it. I guess the view line might have been apparent to anyone attending a remembrance day service in the cemetery but it sure would not have been obvious or useful to anyone trying to understand the building
    I have also always been keen on the potential of prefabrication/modular if for no other reason that it can deliver a superior product at the same or even reduced costs (depending on transportation conditions). Although this approach may not have enough flexibility to satisfy Gehry or Libeskind it has more than enough to meet most of the demands of urban design peculiarities Think of the many shapes that can be made by Lego blocks or perhaps even more significantly, recall what Habitat 67 looked like.. hell you could see right through it when sight lines demanded.

    Liked by 1 person

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