Spokane Journal of Business

Offsite construction helps scale up housing projects

Needs changing in light of pandemic’s duration

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While many questions about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain unclear, at least one thing is certain: its impact on the housing market has thrown an already-critical housing shortage into even sharper focus.

Prior to the pandemic, a U.S. shortage of 7 million affordable and available homes was already forecasted and has only intensified during the pandemic. COVID-driven impacts on construction projects have only created further headwinds in the industry’s ability to scale and respond to the need. Those challenges are being felt across the U.S. and around the globe in the form of construction delays, disrupted supply chains, operational restrictions, and uncertainty in occupancy and rents.

The result only further reinforces the ongoing productivity challenges facing the construction industry and underscores the need for scalable processes and solutions to keep pace with the deficit in housing, particularly in the affordable marketplace.

Coming into the pandemic, the number of multifamily units permitted in the last three years hit a 30-year record. While the pandemic has presented new challenges, the demand for multifamily dwellings has not abated – and will not anytime soon. To meet this demand, the industry must lean into solutions that will increase the predictability and efficiency of project development, design, and construction.

The good news? We’re already seeing momentum for many potential solutions.

Several growing trends in the areas of offsite construction and industrialized building design are poised to provide multifaceted solutions that can help address pandemic impacts, safe working conditions, ongoing labor challenges, and the increased scale of delivery needed to meet housing demand and bend the affordability curve.

Offsite Construction

Interest in factory-built housing and offsite methods, already on the rise over the past few years thanks to the benefits of predictability and speed to market, has increased since the onset of the pandemic. Many experts agree that the pandemic is likely to accelerate adoption of offsite project delivery.

Design for manufacturing and assembly offers a number of competitive advantages that become more relevant in a post-pandemic industry. DfMA and offsite construction have demonstrated that they can help to scale housing production with a focus on repeatable design and mass production – a perfect fit for the unitized nature of multifamily design and construction.

On top of this, shifting labor from construction sites to factory settings also offers benefits during COVID, including enabling staggered schedules and social distancing practices within a tightly controlled factory setting. Offsite construction reduces the overall amount of labor needed at the jobsite as well, in addition to facilitating concurrent site preparation and factory work.

Evolving Needs

It’s clear that the requirements for our living spaces are changing, particularly in a multifamily setting.

Over the past several months, as social distancing has become the new norm and our homes have evolved into blended live-work-learn-play spaces, multifamily design has been forced to pivot around newfound occupant priorities and needs in living space design. The expectation of outdoor spaces within a development, connectivity for education and work, and highly adaptable spaces are all part of an ongoing industry dialog around the future of multifamily design.

Maximizing natural light and considered use of natural materials, such as mass timber, is another factor that will continue to play an increasing role in creating comfortable, healthy interior spaces as people are evolving to spend more time in their shared live-work spaces. Hundreds of studies corroborate the fact that natural elements like sunlight, views, vegetation, air quality, and use of natural materials have substantial impact on occupant well-being within building interiors.

In addition to the benefits to occupants, commercial owners and developers are recognizing the value of these material choices due to their track record of driving premium resale and rental rates, a trend which we are seeing firsthand at Katerra via increased interest in using mass timber in multifamily residential interiors.

What is certain is that projects that already incorporate natural materials, live-work spaces, and indoor-outdoor solutions, will be ahead of the curve.

Urban-Suburban Shift

With work from home becoming a longer-term paradigm and sustained social distancing measures in place, the trend toward suburban relocation has been well-documented and is gaining momentum.

In partnership with a number of our clients in the multifamily market sector, our team has had a line of sight to increased demand for suburban multifamily development around building types, even prior to the pandemic.Garden-style walk-up developments represent a building typology that inherently meets current market needs. As a low-rise building type, often spread out across spacious sites, these developments are the right fit for suburban areas and offer an abundance of outdoor areas, elimination of interior corridors, and limited communal spaces.

Garden-style projects are often overlooked, but they are a critical source of housing supply. About 15 million live in garden apartments, with more than 125,000 new units built annually.

The volume at hand is where offsite construction begins to come back into the picture. Factory-built housing provides a realistic pathway to help scale up repeatable building designs that can be deployed in large volume to help meet a significant portion of our housing market needs.

None of these factors will be a silver bullet solution, neither to the specific pandemic impacts on housing nor to the long-term housing shortage. But if we can begin to embrace these ideas, collectively as an industry, we have the opportunity to not only respond more effectively to COVID – we can perhaps emerge even stronger than before.

  • Kyley Harvey

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