A new wave of investors, from Google to Amazon, are supporting fledgling businesses striving to create affordable housing to Californians with pre-fabricated and 3D printed homes.
The startup FactoryOS is one of many companies tackling the housing crisis by changing how buildings are constructed. Using a former submarine factory in Vallejo, California, the firm constructs pre-fabricated, modular apartments that will be soon be stacked, Lego-like, into a new 110-unit complex in West Oakland next to a BART station.
“I decided about four years ago the only way we could really break this cost spiral up was to try to build as much of the house as possible in an industrialized fashion in an off-site situation,” said Rick Holliday, who recently started FactoryOS after nearly 40 years in real estate development, to Fast Company.
Holliday stated that sharp rises in the cost of land and a shortage of construction labor has made a single affordable apartment unreachable for many, especially in over-priced San Francisco where an apartment can cost $800,000. “This is insanity,” he said to Fast Company.
Working off-site is half the cost and twice as fast of a typical construction job, because each step of the construction process is completed as efficiently as possible. In addition, the factories, located in less expensive areas outside of the city, have lower overhead and labor costs, savings they can pass on to a consumer.
“To simultaneously be able to fabricate units while site work is going on is just intuitively a massive timesaver,” said Adhi Nagraj, director of the nonprofit SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, to Fast Company.
In addition to pre-fabricated homes, other companies (like startup Mighty Buildings) are creating cost savings by using 3D printing to increase automation and lower labor costs. The technology allows contractors to create floors, walls, and even roofs to speed up the construction costs and consequently making housing more affordable.
Modular housing isn’t new. Americans in the 19th and early 20th century purchased pre-fabricated home kits from the mail-order catalog company Sears. Mobile homes have been built for decades. But these new companies, focusing on revolutionary technologies, are a game-changer in the construction industry.
“How we build buildings has not evolved much in the last 50 years, whereas how we build cars and phones and everything else has had massive technological innovation and change,” said Nagraj to Fast Company. “So I’m excited that there is more innovation in the building industry.”
Even underwriters and mortgage firms are getting on board with the efficient and affordable new building technologies. Jonathan Lawless, vice president of product development and affordable housing at Fannie Mae, said to Fast Company: “We have not been building enough homes to support the population growth. So for us, the question is, if we really want to drive affordability, how do we help the industry leverage new technologies like 3D printing to make building homes easier and cheaper?”
However, there is a down side to all this automation—a loss of jobs.
“As someone who’s really a big fan of unions and really loves what they’ve done for this country and for workers, it’s an area I struggle with,” says Sam Ruben, VP of compliance and sustainability at the 3D house-printing startup Mighty Buildings to Fast Company. “We’re seeing it across the board with technology that’s really starting to impact whole swaths of jobs that traditionally have been unionized. There’s a conversation that needs to be had there about what it looks like to responsibly expand technology.”