Prefab and Modular: The Building Blocks For Sustainable Building

July 4, 2018

It is not breaking news that the building industry is one of the biggest pollutant and energy users, globally. But, as industry heads have experienced the market’s reaction and changing priorities, we’ve seen a substantial shift in production methods. This evolution has given birth to a Green or sustainable building movement, along with the emergence of standards and certifications that raise the bar for even more creative and sustainable architecture. As well, advancements in factory production technologies and building methods have led to the emergence of a new prefabricated (aka prefab) and modular building trend. This prefab trend allows for hyper-efficient production (read: less waste, lower cost), optimally efficient homes, integration of leading edge technologies, and ultimately a more sustainable way of living.

In years past, prefab homes were known for poor quality and inferior design. Today however, prefab developers are designing award-winning, luxurious, smart, sustainable homes and buildings.

This inflection of the modular manufacturing trend can be traced back to the emergence of various manufacturing technologies, increased demand for more sustainable structures, and to the post-Katrina response, when communities needed inexpensive housing solutions, quickly. The solutions had to go beyond temporary disaster-relief housing. Organizations like Green Global USA were interested in helping New Orleans rebuild sustainably, so they launched the $1 Million Global Green Competition to align architects with modular design for housing solutions. These included the latest green and high-performance criteria for building in hurricane prone areas.

Beyond the response to Katrina, we’ve seen the evolution of organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council who have incentivized green building through programs like LEED. Other similar organizations have followed suit, such as the Living Building Challenge, Passive Haus and Well Building, all with similar intent: to formally incentivize, measure and drive sustainable building, which has been a primary strategy of the modular developers.

FORCES PROPELLING THE PREFAB AND MODULAR MOVEMENT

Looking forward, the prefab housing market demand is expected to rise nearly 6% per year through 2020. Shipments from US prefab producers are presumed to reach 123,500 units by then, with an overall market valuation of $7.3 billion.

Advances in prefab and modular building technology have made homeownership of this kind more appealing. Prefab manufacturers are now 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.

After the last recession, the availability of skilled construction labor rapidly decreased as many left the industry and were not replaced. Even today, skilled construction labor is scarce, and even more so in areas affected by disasters like hurricane Katrina, California’s wildfires, and Mexico’s earthquakes. Prefabricated building methods affords developers the flexibility to build in a controlled factory environment, while at the same time allowing them to be more efficient with resources. In a Forbes interview, Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute, Tom Hardiman, pointed out an interesting industry comparison-

“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.”

Urbanization continues to draw large numbers of people to cities at an unsustainable rate. We are seeing bidding wars for home ownership in many cities, while rising costs make ownership only practical for the wealthy. As well, some of the real estate available in these areas includes old infrastructure that is energy inefficient and not compliant with the latest code. Prefab homes, on the other hand, are typically leveraging the latest technologies and materials, and can be up to 50% less expensive to buy than traditional on-site building. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016 the average sales price for a newly constructed home was $372,500, compared to $73,100 for a new factory-built model. An additional savings of up to 40% is expected in monthly utility bills. 

Millennials and the newer generations expect employers to provide healthier work and living spaces, and as these first-time homebuyers enter the housing market, we’re seeing an increase in demand for green, affordable, walkable, and community-centered places. Let’s not forget that Millennials are the creators of the sharing economy and are seeking to live bigger with less, creating an overall cultural shift across all generations. They are not looking for large ownership, but a place they can call home and feel like it aligns with their values. Connectivity and smart appliances are always at the front of mind with this group. This new generation is the driver behind the smart, connected homes movement.

PREFAB MODULAR BUILDERS LEVERAGING NEW SUSTAINABLE BUILDING TECHNOLOGY

Emerging green technologies and new products help us maintain and improve our lifestyle while reducing our impact on the environment. Breakthroughs in fledgling industries like cleantech and greentech, and even more focused fields like watertech, agtech, foodtech, and clean energy are impacting us every day. And some prefab developers are leveraging these technologies extensively. Some are, in fact, creating utility pack systems that deliver the resources to live comfortably, with a significantly lighter footprint. For example, solar energy is stored in local batteries rather than the energy grid. Similarly, new technologies are recycling and purifying water on-site to minimize the waste of this limited resource. These products are making the NET ZERO goal (when one has zero footprint in the environment) possible. It is also opening the door to living independent from the grid, i.e., living “off-grid”.

Orbital Systems, the leader in water-recycling shower technology, is partnering with innovative leaders in the prefab manufacturing space who are also committed to our vision of creating a new paradigm in daily water use. By its nature, Orbital’s water saving and energy efficient shower, the Oas, is a perfect compliment to these off-grid developments. It helps them save up to 90% of the water they waste with showers, and and 80% of the energy required to heat that water. Additionally, because the Oas is a wifi connected smart shower system, it provides users with performance and savings data in real-time. This data can be communicated with the hotel guest user or home owner to connect them to the goal of greater sustainability and Net Zero. Who doesn’t love bragging rights for being a proud Earth steward and trend setter?

Our collaboration towards helping builders develop an independent utility system allows them to deliver on their promise of an off-grid, sustainable prefab structure. It will ultimately reduce a building’s dependence on generic energy, outdated water infrastructure, and wasteful systems. These forward thinking developers include PassivDom, POSHTEL POPUP®, and Region6 Ventures.

PassivDom is a cutting-edge prefab manufacturer and developer of 3D printed homes. The 3D printed units are 100% independent from the grid and traditional infrastructure, allowing people to live in their dream locations, no matter how remote. PassivDom homes are entirely self-sustaining, and because of their unique 3D printing methods, they are an extremely temperature efficient solution with the comfort of an everyday home. Additionally, they integrate the latest technology for fully-networked smart living.

“We are creating something very interesting with extraordinary characteristics. The Oas Shower is an important component of our autonomous, networked utility system that works to deliver the comfort of a home while being 100% self-sustaining.”
- Maxim Gerbut
Founding Partner of PassivDom

POSHTEL POPUP® is a global chain of sustainable luxury hotels built from upcycled shipping containers, currently expanding worldwide. Poshtel integrates the latest ecological design that allows people to realize big ideas in a matter of months. Designer houses, stylish condos and luxury hotels can literally pop-up. With its off-grid technology, Poshtel will be integrated in unexplored locations, all over the globe without any major infrastructure investment and environmental harm, whilst catering to the luxury adventure traveller. The units pop up in places without infrastructure or utility services and can be stacked one on top of the other to form larger structures for disaster relief operations.

“By partnering with Orbital Systems, we can bring our new off-grid, sustainable travel concept to life. Orbital System’s, water-saving shower technology enables us to be four times more water efficient, whilst providing a luxurious experience in an off-grid environment.” -
- O Koo
CEO of Poshtel

Region6 Ventures is an innovative hospitality concept in the adventure-travel industry, where guests can rent low-impact, luxurious cabins in scenic locations across the Pacific Northwest. Region6 is changing the marketplace by offering sustainable options for outdoor adventure travelers.These luxurious basecamps will focus on remote areas and operate as a five-star hospitality option with amenities, including concierge services that help travelers plan adventures. These prefab modular units are developed offsite and shipped to temporary remote locations, typically in national parks and wilderness space.

“The Oas Shower is an important component of our off-grid utility system that works to deliver the comfort of home in a box. Our utility system aims to make every R6 cabin feel like a five-star hotel, while saving energy and resources.”
- Kaine Robertson
Founding Partner of Region6 Ventures

There are other developers in this space doing groundbreaking things, including LivingHomes - Plant Prefab, Acre Homes, Cubicco, BluHomes, Katerra, Method Homes, Deltec Homes, and Unity Homes among others. Each brings a level of uniqueness that serve different consumer needs. They do have one thing in common: they are disruptors and innovators of a century old industry.

At Orbital Systems, we are excited about the possibilities of sustainable building with this prefab modular development movement. The futuristic smart-home vision, where efficiency, affordability, sustainability and cool technology intersect, is becoming a reality. And we are proud to be an integral player in the movement. Soon the expectation that one can take a long, warm and high pressure shower will be the norm. And it will come with water savings, power savings, and the ability to let the whole world know how much good you are doing, real-time.

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