Why Is the Homebuilding Industry Stuck in the 1940s?

Avi Friedman, City Lab
September 24, 2018

Danny Cleary looked tense as he watched the first prefabricated wall panel rolling off the assembly line in his newly opened factory near Montreal. He asked his production manager to hand him a tape measure. He carefully measured the left side of the panel, then walked around the assembly table and measured the right side and then across. “Quarter of an inch difference. The table needs adjustment,” he said quietly in French.

I had met Cleary a few years earlier. He called me after he’d joined his father’s midsize construction company and found out about my Grow Home design. “Most of the clients in our area are young, first-time homebuyers who can’t afford large homes. Your design will suit them,” he explained. His instinct served him well. Our conversation was in the late 1990s: In the following years his firm sold over 400 Grow Homes to become the largest builder in the region.

Even for a well-off builder like him, constructing a plant to produce prefabricated homes was a risky venture requiring a large investment. When we met I asked him about the switch.

“When I visit my building sites and see a bundle of lumber delivered, thrown on the muddy soil, and watch my framers assemble it in a rainy, snowy, or hot summer day, all in the open, I sense there can be better ways to construct,” he said. “Building a home in a quality-controlled, sheltered environment makes a lot of sense. I decided I could fabricate my company’s own homes for less and manufacture wall panels for other builders as well.”

Cleary’s attempt at prefabrication is not common in a North American homebuilding industry that is notorious for its conservative attitude. Numerous prefabrication units are built each year, providing ample opportunity for research and innovation, yet construction methods of low-rise, wood-frame homes still fundamentally resemble those of the 1940s.

The quality of building products has significantly improved but not the basics of constructing a home. In fact, monetary investment in research and development in the homebuilding industry is minimal compared to that invested in industries like electronic, automotive, or pharmaceutical. The reason? Lack of industry interest, market pull, and failure to address new emerging social circumstances creatively.

Past approaches no longer answer today’s demands: Every step of the process needs to be reconsidered.

It has become abundantly clear that current community planning, home design, and construction are facing challenges of philosophy and form. Those past approaches no longer answer today’s demands: Every step of the process needs to be reconsidered. The need for a new outlook is propelled by fundamental environmental, economic, cultural, and social realities, which, at the turn of the 21st century came to affect the rudimentary pillars of building a home.

The depletion of non-renewable natural resources, alarming levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change are a few of the environmental challenges that call for a reconsideration of old practices in favor of ones that promote better suitability between buildings and their environments. Concepts that minimize a home’s carbon footprint, such as advanced heating and cooling systems technologies and use of homes that produce as much as energy as they consume—net-zero homes—are some contemporary strategies that builders need to integrate into their practice across the board.

On the economic front, the increasing costs of materials, labor, land, and infrastructure put housing beyond the reach of many. Affordability is well-served by concepts that include adaptable units where the occupants can select only the components that they need and can afford. Variations might include the type of kitchen as well as smaller, less-expensive models from the same prefabricated design.

Also, as the retirement of Baby Boom generation intensifies, the demands of housing a large elderly cohort will dominate the market. Aging-in-place and multigenerational living are some concepts that need to be considered. New living habits also merit attention: With the advent of digital technologies, live-work arrangements have become part of the economic reality for those who wish to work from home and avoid a long commute.

On an urban scale, the urgent need to reduce urban sprawl and its many negative ramifications on the environment forces the planning of denser mixed-use communities where occupants rely less on their private vehicles to foster a healthy active lifestyle.

In the 1990s, I addressed these challenges through my own research and design at the Affordable Homes Program I co-founded at McGill University. With Witold Rybczynski, I designed the 1,000-square-foot Grow Home. Cost reduction was the main objective. We argued that newly built homes can be smaller in area, have simpler form, be narrow and tall rather than wide, to save land, and attached to one another as townhouses to reduce soaring energy cost and reduce urban sprawl by forming denser communities. The units were offered with unpartitioned space (i.e. no walls on upper level), hence the “grow,” for those who wish to complete that space when means become available. We paid special attention to appearance and quality, insisting that small or lower cost need not necessarily be cheap or poor looking.

Built first as a demonstration on the campus of McGill University, the design struck a chord with the industry and the public. The Grow Home plans are available for anyone to use freely: Thousands of units have been built (often under different names) by private builders here and abroad. More than a design concept, the Grow Home introduced a different mindset: Not everyone needs a kitchen that features granite countertops and is large enough to square dance in.

In the Next Home, also built on McGill’s grounds and then in building sites, we addressed the diversity and varying needs of today’s clientele. Whereas the Grow Home was designed for a single household, the three-story Next Home, which measured 2,000 square feet, housed several families in the same building. The uniqueness of the concept lay in the ability given to builders to configure it as two- or three-family units.

Flexibility of choice was achieved by creating an expanded menu of offerings for buyers from which they could select, among others, a kitchen and bathroom or a home office design that suited their personal need and means. Once chosen, the builder could locate these items anywhere on the floor according to the occupants’ preferences.

The Domus Ex Machina home, a completed design, set innovation in methods of construction as its main target. The dwelling was designed for modular (i.e. constructing a complete unit in a plant) or panelized (i.e. building just the walls in the plant) prefabrication with a limited number of typical panel sizes to reduce fabrication cost and save time.

To facilitate interior choices, an interactive computer program was introduced to enable buyers to create or modify an interior layout to meet their household composition, lifestyle and budget. Changes over the course of the residency were made simple by placing demountable partitions in strategic spots that are likely to require change.

We also tackled construction of the utility systems. In most homes, utility lines such as hot and cold water, and drainage pipes, are laid out according to the location of the kitchen or the bathroom and can run anywhere in the walls and floors making construction costly and cumbersome. In Domus, a single accessible chase that runs along the long dimension of the floor contains all the conduits, making installation of new pipes or fixtures and their maintenance and replacement simple. In the rooms, the electric wires run in a canal beyond the wall’s lower molding to facilitate change or addition of outlets over the residency.  

Careful consideration was also given to the selection of sustainable technologies to promote minimal consumption of energy and rain water collection and construction products made of recycled materials, to name a few. The kitchen includes an appliance where occupants can grow their own food.

Innovations by international architects and builders are also shaping the residential landscape: The Dutch firm DAAD Architecten designed a prefabricated unit that can be added to the top of an existing structure. The New York firm Studio Aisslinger introduced LoftCube, a self-sufficient box that can be placed on the roof of apartment buildings in dense areas. Vancouver architect Michael Katz designed a micro unit that can be placed on very small lots. The success of these projects and others is likely to play a pivotal role in bending designers’ and builders’ minds about new housing ideas in the coming years. In the Affordable Homes Program we continue to adapt our designs with an increasing focus on sustainability.

The challenges faced by society in recent years have forced reconsideration of old practices on many fronts. We are rethinking the form of cities to make them denser, walkable, and to make living in them more affordable, as well as integrating new functions such as urban agriculture: We cannot afford to leave an essential element of cities—the dwelling—in the 20th century.

The residential environment needs to change at a much more rapid pace. This will happen when all parties involved including governments, designers, and builders join hands to bring about much-needed out-of-the-box thinking.