Five components of the modular future

Factory-built homes could make affordable, healthy city living possible for all, say Narada Golden and Chris Edmonds

December 2018

Words by Narada Golden and Chris Edmonds


Modular housing addresses a range of urban problems

Modular construction sits at the intersection of so many prescient topics right now: from increasing urban density and development on brownfield sites, to the demand for healthy, sustainable and affordable housing, to the creation of safe and equitable green jobs. When the US Environmental Protection Agency asked WSP’s Built Ecology team to develop a strategy for affordable multifamily modular housing in the Bay Area, all of these came up in our research.


Families could become DIY developers

Modular could address the need for healthy and affordable housing in big cities, not just for the most needy but for everybody. It could allow families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy a home in New York City, for example, to become their own DIY developers. End-users could customize every aspect of their space by clicking through an online portal, and their new factory-built home could be added to a ten or 20-storey building. Modular could even displace the role of the architect or developer altogether.


It takes a developer who’s willing to embrace risk

Creative solutions are instrumental to navigating risks. Some people look at modular as a way to build higher-quality projects, some as an urban density strategy, and others to realize significant potential cost savings. But the promise of modular comes with some very real risks. Most developers are not set up to pursue this option because it requires “outside the box” financing and contracts and they are not able to navigate those risks. Developers with an appetite for imaginative solutions along with higher risk and reward are better suited for modular.


A collaborative design can be a more sustainable one

Modular requires an integrative design process. To succeed, project teams must collaborate from early on, and this becomes an opportunity to also integrate sustainability, health and resilience strategies into the project. Modular has other sustainability benefits. Because materials are bought at scale and a large part of the project is constructed in one place, waste can be drastically reduced. Tighter construction tolerances and more control over material sourcing can also lead to significant improvements in energy efficiency and indoor air quality.

From The Possible, issue 04

Read the magazine


It could mean a fairer deal for the workforce

Although factory-built projects will be disruptive for the construction workforce, modular has the potential to benefit employees and improve social equity. It offers better health and safety during construction and opens up the industry to non-traditional employees — in one factory in Phoenix, Arizona, women make up 40% of the workforce, compared to 9% in the wider industry.

Narada Golden is vice president and leads WSP’s Built Ecology team in New York City. Chris Edmonds is sustainability consultant on the Built Ecology team and led the EPA Affordable Modular Housing project

Leave a comment