An ambitious plan to change how we build housing
Just beyond the snowy streets and neatly packed three-flats of Chicago’s southwest side, the factory at 3348 South Pulaski appears like a low gray monolith, spanning nearly 10 normal blocks and serving as a boundary between the residential neighborhood and the city’s industrial freight hub.
Inside, the Chicago general contractor Skender is setting up what amounts to an apartment factory: An assembly line that will crank into gear in the spring, producing standardized apartment units ready to be bolted into a steel-framed stack on a building site. Modular construction is more than a century old, and in contemporary America, it’s seen mixed success–but the 63-year-old general contractor, which launched a separate entity for its modular arm, Skender Manufacturing, last year, believes the technology is worth investing in.
On a recent afternoon, its executives showed off the company’s first prototype: A white-walled one-bedroom (fully furnished with a Nest thermostat, Crate and Barrel 2 platform bed, and scent diffuser) that glowed like a beacon on the otherwise darkened factory floor. When the first apartments come off the line next year, they’ll be transported only a few miles away for assembly on a 110-unit condo building in the city’s West Loop. After that, the company plans to begin production on a three-flat design and healthcare-focused hospital rooms.
The promise of the factory is twofold: The company believes it will cut construction costs by as much as 15%, and speed up construction by as much as 40%. “It shifts the mentality” away from the conventional building process, where a developer hires an architect, an engineer, and a contractor, and then the contractor hires out subcontractors, says CEO Mark Skender. That traditional workflow makes it easy to miscommunicate and to shift blame when things do go wrong, which can lead to lengthy delays, budget overruns, and litigation. “What we’re looking to do is, ‘Here’s this building, with its features and its benefits, and we will deliver that for X.’ It’s a product-based mentality that shifts the paradigm on the way we deliver buildings.”
Skender isn’t the first company to open a modular construction factory in a major American city over the past few years. There have been other attempts to make the dream of modular housing a reality with mixed results. A high-profile 2011 project designed by SHoP Architects that aimed to build the tallest modular tower in the world in downtown Brooklyn–at what, in retrospect, looks like an absurd estimate of 70% cost and speed savings compared to a conventional tower–was embroiled for years in disputes and other issues. Ultimately the developer, Forest City Ratner, sold off its prefab business altogether. Still, other modular builders have had success with smaller-scale projects, and the company Katerra has raised $1 billion to fund its efforts around modular housing.