Pre-Fab Buildings to Ease the Housing Crisis

Modular housing is cheaper and faster to build compared to conventional buildings. These advantages could make it an effective and viable way to increase apartment housing stock.

November 4, 2019, 5:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink

Washington, D.C. Apartment

David Harmantas / Shutterstock

Matt Levin reports on developments in modular housing and its potential to bring down construction costs for larger buildings. A manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay Area assembles units offsite so the buildings can go up in days. "Picture one of those gigantic General Motors plants in Detroit, where a car is put together in an assembly line. Instead of a Buick and a conveyor belt, construction workers in hard hats and goggles are assembling a 156-unit apartment building for a development near Oakland," says Levin.

Levin also explores the history of pre-fab housing in the United States, including Operation Breakthrough, a federally funded $190 million initiative started in 1969 that eventually proved unsuccessful. "Much of the housing ended up being uninhabitable after a few years, adding to the public perception that factory-built housing was at best shabby, and at worst dangerous. Congress pulled the plug shortly after the prototype sites were completed."

Operation Breakthrough also could not achieve the necessary economies of scale, and today’s developers face the same challenge. With a focus on larger housing projects, rather than single-family homes, modular housing manufacturers hope that the market for mass-produced buildings will continue to grow.

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