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Prefabricated Housing and Buildings Evolve, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

In this increasingly technology-driven era, it is interesting to note that homebuilding is one of the last industries to remain focused on manufacturing by hand using traditional methods.  For several decades, entrepreneurs have attempted to commercialize various kinds of prefabricated housing with very little success.  For example, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) pushed a well-funded program in the late 1960s that sought to encourage modestly priced, high-quality housing through factory fabrication in materials that included steel as well as wood.  The Sears Roebuck catalog sold home kits as early as 1908 (these now historic homes are considered highly desirable today).  Post-World War II, William J. Levitt, a homebuilding leader of great fame, introduced modular housing to lukewarm response, which petered out once the housing boom subsided.
Nonetheless, until recently, the market for prefabricated housing was tiny, and most homes are still constructed on-site by hand.  This is also true in commercial buildings.
Enter “panelization,” the practice of building and assembling elements such as foundations, walls and staircases off-site at a factory and then trucking them to a home site for assembly.  PulteGroup, one of the largest homebuilders in the U.S., is embracing the practice, as are many major builders across the nation.  
Today’s panelization is more far-reaching than Levitt’s historic practice, which merely assembled basic framing off-site.  The quality of panelized flooring, walls and staircases has risen remarkably thanks to new techniques, and building these elements at a factory offers many advantages to working on-site.  A foundation can be poured and cured indoors, thereby eliminating the need to wait for good weather at the home site.  Substantial savings in construction time are a plus, and panelization also addresses the problem of the scarcity of skilled laborers in many areas.  Homebuilders that have embraced at least some aspect of the prefab component trend include PulteGroup, Toll Brothers, Inc. and Beazer Homes USA, Inc.
A startup in San Francisco called Project Frog ( specializes in prefab commercial buildings.  The firm had constructed a number of buildings (including a convenience store for 7-Eleven, a small conference center and small school facilities).  The company continues to build for the lucrative health care market, including projects for Kaiser Permanente.
China’s Broad Sustainable Building (BSB, formerly the Broad Group) is taking prefabrication to a whole new level.  It builds modules that it calls “main boards” used in multistory buildings such as the T30, a 30-story hotel which was completed on its final site in Hunan Province in only 15 days.  The main boards are 12.8 feet by 51.2 feet and include water pipes, ventilation shafts and even finishes such as floor tiles, lights and plumbing fixtures.  In addition to the amazing building speeds, BSB also touts the sustainability of its structures, claiming that they create 1% of the waste of traditional buildings and are five times more energy efficient due to pre-installed thermal installation and four-paned windows.  BSB erected a 30-story hotel in Changsha in 2012 in only 15 days.  Its most ambitious project, the 202-story Sky City proposed for Changsha, the capital of the Hunan province, broke ground in July 2013, and was promised to be completed in only four months.  However, the building was mired in problems and delays, and the project was scrapped in mid-2016.  BSB did complete the 57-story Mini Sky City in Changsha in south-central China in mid-2015, finishing the final 37 stories in 18 days.

SPOTLIGHT:  Resolution: 4 Architecture
Bucking a long-term, widely held distaste for prefabricated housing, a maverick firm called Resolution: 4 Architecture ( is promoting manufactured, modular housing.  Modules can be manufactured in a factory and assembled into a completed house in one of several dozen designs.  The company won a competition sponsored by Dwell, a home design magazine, to design a house near Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  In addition, the firm has designed a beach house in Ventura, California, a vacation home in East Hampton, New York and a 1,725-square-foot suburban home in Long Island, New York.  Contemporary and hip in design, the homes generally appeal to young, cost-conscious homebuyers with cutting-edge tastes.

     Robotics in prefab wall panel manufacturing is on the rise.  Investors have been backing tech startups specializing in construction in a big way.  Baltimore, Maryland-based Blueprint Robotics, Inc. (, for example, acts as a subcontractor to builders and developers, supplying completed sections or entire rooms, some finished with tiled showers and gourmet kitchens.  Another example is CT&RI Homes ( which assembles factory-made homes on customers’ lots.  Robots do much of the work on assembly lines, including cutting, sanding, drilling, nailing and insulating.  A significant portion of the total construction has been completed when these prefab components arrive on site.
Austin, Texas-based startup ICON ( has developed a proprietary 3D printer system called Vulcan that fabricates interior and exterior walls made of stacked concrete layers.  ICON first built homes in El Salvador and is building a series of 3D printed homes in Austin.  Building time for completed walls is projected to be as little as 24 hours.  Home builder Lennar Corp. planned to team with ICON to build 100 3D homes near Austin starting in 2022.
Meanwhile, Swedish construction giant Skanska AB is partnering with IKEA to construct affordable housing.  Called BoKlok, the venture utilizes robots to build prefabricated rooms which are put together on-site.  Skanska reports that it cuts building time in half and reduces costs by 35%.  Its factory is located in Gullringen and has a capacity of 1,200 affordable homes per year.a

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