William J. Levitt dramatically changed the way homes were built in America when he and his sons developed Levittown, the first truly mass-produced suburb, nearly 70 years ago. The home building industry added many innovations since then, but they have come mostly in the area of the materials and tools that are used. We build homes that are much more energy efficient than what Levitt & Sons did, thanks to products like house wrap, better insulation, more efficient systems and use of solar panels. We now use re-purposed products like oriented strand board and we can achieve longer spans with glulam beams and truss joists. These are wonderful improvements, but they are what goes into a home, not the way we build a home.

Carpenters may have nail guns today, but they still use nails. Roof trusses are now what almost every home builder uses. They allow the roof framing to be manufactured in a factory and shipped to the construction site ready to install. Panelized wall systems have been utilized by some, but there are still better ways to build, and that is what the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt will demonstrate.

The Virginia Tech Center for Design Research has developed “a new way of building architecture,” according to Joseph Wheeler, co-director of the Center, one that can utilize robotics just like the auto industry does. They call it a “cartridge.” The concept is simple and brilliant at the same time. When you look at a single-family home, most of the walls are pretty simple, studs, gyp-board, electrical wiring and maybe a window. But there are a handful of walls in the home where there is a lot going on, such as in the kitchen and bath.

Kitchen cartridge
Virginia Tech, Joe Wheeler

By shipping cabinets, appliances and fixtures to the factory instead of the job site, one day this cartridge will be manufactured much like the car. The Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt is building its cartridges in a plant. The back wall of the kitchen, the plumbing walls of the bath, and the mechanical walls in the utility room will all be fully contained, wired and plumbed in a cartridge roughly 30 inches deep. They are shipped to the site, plugged into the foundation and then joined together by wall panels and covered with roof trusses.

Because of the way they are manufactured, cartridges go well beyond just the plumbing walls. The ProjeKt includes two unique walls that demonstrate how tomorrow’s home can flex as needed. The back wall of the secondary bedroom features a cartridge that has a fold up bed, with a fold down desk so the room can function as an office as well as a bedroom. The wall between that bedroom and living room moves to allow the living space to expand for entertaining, and the video screen rotates to allow either room to use it. These flexible cartridges allow the industry to evolve; we won’t need to build all the rooms that we have typically constructed in the past. New homes will leave a smaller carbon footprint.

William Levitt showed us a new way to build America’s single-family homes. It has taken nearly 70 years, but finally, the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt will show the home building industry an equally innovative new way to build. Sign up today for a tour at the Greenbuild Confernce and Expo, October 5 to 8.