The traditional building industry might have been one of the biggest polluters and energy users globally. But millennials—and millennials-at-heart—are changing all that. By leading the demand for more sustainable housing. And putting modular development at the forefront of new home building.
If you believe that climate change is an existential threat, like almost 90% of all 18-34 year olds with a college degree, it's likely you are (or will be) part of a new segment of home buyers who expect smarter alternatives. The generic home building journey is costly, inefficient and wasteful. Worse, the resulting home isn't fit for ongoing sustainable living.
Enter modular housing. For a growing number of buyers, young and old, modular building is part of their answer to a warming planet. To them, it simply makes sense to choose housing with a much smaller environmental footprint—and cost—than building a traditional home. Even better, they're often equipped for connectivity and modern sustainable living, with features such as smart appliances or advanced solar energy capture and storage systems. And with innovative technologies such as the OAS closed-loop shower from Orbital Systems, which uses up to 90% less water and 80% less energy.
In other words, modular living lines up with modern values—prioritizing sustainability and resource efficiency while being comfortable, smart and connected.
The business case for modular building is easy. As Tom Hardiman, Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute, put it in an interview for Forbes: “No one would question how we build cars today. It would be comical to have all the parts delivered to your driveway with a dozen workers to build it…Yet we build our homes, schools and offices in this inefficient and wasteful manner every day.”
Responding to the demand of a new generation of home buyers, the industry has pursued advances in prefab and modular building technology—and without a doubt succeeded. Modular homes account for 10% of all new home builds since 2011. In 2017 alone, US producers built 93,000 of them.
A modular home can be defined as a pre-engineered, "some assembly required" structure that is delivered to the site of your choice and erected there. From a purely construction perspective, its main advantages are shorter construction times and lower skilled labor costs. But that's not the whole story.
Gone are the days of pre-fab homes being mostly known for their poor quality and interior design. Developers are now designing award-winning, luxurious, smart, sustainable homes and buildings. Modular manufacturers are producing energy efficient structures. They are built with more sustainable building materials and they undergo a more efficient and controlled process that reduces room for structural error, waste, labor issues or slow-downs due to weather.
All advances which, in turn, make homeownership of this kind more appealing.
The modular home boom isn't limited to primary residences. One clever developer, Net-Zen Cottages, is applying the same pre-engineering and sustainability standards to accessory dwelling units.
"Net-Zen Cottages are that perfectly sized extra living or work space," says CEO and founder Michael Ferrone. "I built and lived in a 384 sq ft space, 24' x 16', with my wife and two kids for four years. Just to be sure."
The cottages are pre-engineered kits designed from a number of perspectives, not the least of which is accessibility: the greatest design is pointless if you can't get your hands on one. Net-Zen Cottages, unlike most other modular living spaces, will be widely available nationally, and potentially internationally in the same basic design and top quality materials.
"My approach is different," says Michael. "I want to offer reasonably sized, sustainably produced and light footprint shelter that would come in around 50% less than it would cost to be custom-built. And I want everyone to be able to get one."
A Net-Zen Cottage can be used for almost anything: a temporary residence on the land you're planning for a main home later. Guest housing. A separate office or business area. "They may be designed for accessory dwelling," says Michael." "But practically speaking, you can find a lot of uses for them, and you can live in them—comfortably—for a long time."
To get a cottage, customers go through their local lumber yard to choose the basic design in the eave height they prefer. The lumber yard pre-cuts Net-Zen chosen structural insulated panels (SIPS) and rafters, and their rep or your tradesperson or team assembles it onsite at your property. The result is faster construction with no room for error, and lower labor costs.
"People are looking for this," says Michael. "In Europe, or other markets, your brother or father-in-law might help you build something along these lines on the weekend. In this market, you want someone to do it for you—and that's a custom job, with all of the costs and uncertainties that come with it. With a Net-Zen Cottage, you avoid all of that hassle and extra expense."
As for the materials themselves, the panels combine insulation with nailable sheathing and provide the highest R-value available—making the cottage weather-tight and low cost to heat.
"Sustainability is an important and attractive feature of Net-Zen Cottages," says Michael. "The concept is designed around material and operational sustainability. It's also why I will be promoting OAS closed-loop showers as an option in every cottage."
The OAS closed loop shower was developed by Orbital Systems founder Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, based on his work with the NASA Mars missions.
OAS showers recirculate a small amount of water, continually filtering and temperature correcting it for as long as you shower. To improve the lifespan of the filters, the system flushes out the water that is too contaminated, for instance with soap, and replaces it automatically with small amounts of new fresh water.
Shower flow rates can vary, depending on where you live. But up to 2 gallons per minute wouldn't be unusual—meaning a 10 minute shower would use 20 gallons of fresh, heated water.
With OAS, that same 20 gallon shower could use as little as 2. At the same time, the technology ensures the consistent pressure and temperature expected of a premium shower experience.
Michael also points to a hidden—but equally important—advantage of technologies like OAS.
"So much of the cost to build a house is the infrastructure for handling the effluent generated in it. OAS lowers the need to accommodate the flows we plan for now—going from 55,000 gallons to 5500 gallons, for instance, would save thousands in construction costs."
Some people don't just want to get away from it all—they want to live away from it all. For them, advances in modular home design allow them to not only have their dream home, but have it in their dream location.
"Our homes can be deployed almost literally anywhere," says Wildernests' founder and CEO Alexander Aboshiha. "They are self-sustainable from energy and water perspectives, so there is no need for the grid. Yet they provide more than 2000 sq ft of luxurious, architecturally-designed living. You don't give up anything with a Wildernest home—there's a lot of freedom in being able to live the life you want without being tied down to any particular spot."
Wildernest homes include self-contained energy, waste, water and communications capabilities. The home is relatively easy to transport—yet is also capable of withstanding wildfires and serving as shelter during hurricanes. Wildernest chose Orbital Systems as a partner and supplier for the home's water purification and self-containment.
"We liked the lowest possible water and energy use, of course, which are critical to the Wildernest concept," says Alexander. "But we were also impressed by the tracking tech—that our owners could see how much water and power they were saving. It's just the way modern living should be."
PassivDom is also a cutting-edge modular manufacturer and developer of 3D printed homes. They too are 100% independent from the grid and traditional infrastructure, allowing people to live in their dream locations, no matter how remote.
PassivDom homes' unique 3D printing method allows for an extremely temperature efficient construction. They also integrate the latest technology for fully networked smart living.
“We are creating something very interesting with extraordinary characteristics," says founding partner Maxim Gerbut. "The OAS Shower is an important component of our autonomous, networked utility system. It helps deliver the comfort of a home, while still being 100% self-sustaining.”
More and more, modular housing is poised to become the new normal.
Modular has accounted for nearly 10% of all new home builds in the US since 2011. In raw numbers, that equates to more than 700,000 new modular homes produced by 125 modular manufacturing facilities in that time span.
And demand is expected to climb nearly 6% per year through 2020. Manufacturer shipments are estimated to reach 123,500 units annually by then, with an overall market valuation of $7.3 billion.
That growth shouldn't be surprising. According to the US Census Bureau, the average sale price of a traditional newly constructed home in 2016 was $372,500. Compare that to $73,100 for a new factory-built model—without counting the estimated additional savings of up to 40% in monthly utility bills. That's a lot of avocado toast.
More importantly, the modular movement is a push in the right direction for more sustainable living. While a significant part of the population, millennial or not, are more and more interested in living their lives with sustainability in mind, the solutions to make it possible haven't always been there.
With modular housing and innovation like OAS showers, that's changed. They are perfect examples of disruptors, instinctively-appreciated breakthroughs that make legacy systems feel as old and unsuited to modern living as they are. And they're making the shift to more sustainable living as simple and natural as it needs to be to succeed. Viva la revolucion.