Is a home of the mid-term future--say, 2020--capable of being a home of the longer term future? 2050, for example? And in 2050, can that same home be a home of the future?

We think so.

All that requires is for a home to be able to adapt and change in real-time and over time to conditions and people's needs. (Think of a home in its entirety, and even a community as a kind of scaled-up version of Google's Nest, which learns as it teaches, and changes in both real-time and over time how it performs.) In turn, all that requires is transformation, not only in what we build for buyers and renters, but how we build.

What we build whether it's now, in 2020, or in 2050, will have to answer to timeless needs for safety, access to sustaining resources (food, water, comfort, connection, health), and well-being. The focus then--tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow--will likely be on two areas of house construction, the envelope and its systems. Together, envelopes and systems need increasingly to both structurally endure, tolerate time and elements, and remain stable, while systems need constantly to adapt, self-heal, upgrade, simplify, and improve the "user experience" of living in that particular home.

One way or another, the answers may have to do with two concepts. One is what stays the same [or doesn't change]. The other is what changes [or doesn't stay the same]. Those who design, engineer, build, finance, manufacture, and distribute goods for homes and communities have become successful modeling their businesses and executing on those models through many housing cycles with surprisingly little change to what's worked and what doesn't work.

So, skepticism about an alternative path, a disrupter, a discontinuity that could cause once-successful companies to fail--not because they become complacent, or sloppy, or ineffective at executing what made them succeed--precisely because they keep doing what made them win up to now. How difficult it is for people running companies that have been successful in some form or fashion for 100 years doing things a certain way to imagine that those practices that made firms succeed could cause them to fail today or tomorrow!

Now, we got word this week that another of single-family home building's largest enterprises is exploring how and where modular construction technology and platforms fit into its sticks-and-bricks site-built operation. This is significant. Modular platforms and semi-successful modular home construction business models have been around the block a few times in the past half century or more.

Few argue that off-site, factory-based assembly of structures beat the heck out of site-built construction on a number of levels--namely, quality and precision and efficiency. What's tended to hold back wider adoption and traction for modular is shipping as well as certain vicissitudes of each home site that require particular attention to one-off differences and make scalability a challenge. The cost of modularity, in other words, has generally run counter to high-volume production home building.

Trucking most modular homes to a site up to now is tantamount in the majority of cases to shipping air. What's more, trucking modular sections of homes to sites can cause damage to parts and pieces during the travel and handling from factory to site.

Still, in a few exceptional bright-spot cases, however, we're seeing hybrid construction technology platforms that blend factory-built and site-built processes. They mostly center on developing cartridges off-site that can ship like cabinet sets to job sites and snap into place, almost as simple as Lego pieces.

We say we've heard about another big builder exploring a key role for modular, factory-based assembly in its high-volume, site-built business, because we know first-hand that one of home building's top 10--KB Home, which is No. 6 on the Builder 100 rankings--is most definitely doing so.

Our partnership initiative--the Greenbuild KB Home ProjeKt--is such an exploration, and its sights are set on offering at glimpse at a "house of the future" in both the midterm future of a Zero Net Energy state in 2020, and a, if you will, Plus Net Value state in 2050.

Specifically, KB Home and a host of manufacturer, design, and development partners are creating a scenario not just for what changes in home design, engineering, and performance, but how firms that produce and deliver homes to the marketplace change their very business models, processes, focus points, and attitudes to succeed.

Part of that--KB and this other large home builder we're referring to believe--is modularity. It means that at least part of the construction process, an essential part of it, will happen off-site. Assemblages called "cartridges" will be manufactured, packed into easily, safely and efficiently shippable components, will one-day-soon be part and parcel of every home's construction workflow.

Some of those modularized systems will address a home's building envelope, and some of them will be the "systems," the software that makes a home function increasingly as a portfolio of services vs. a durable good that's manufactured in time, sold, and then begins its cycle of declining value over time.

If homes are--in fact--services rather than hard goods, what does that mean for those who develop, design, and deliver homes? How does that change business models, if one wakes up one day and finds out he or she works for a technology services provider rather than a home building company? Part of the answer is concealed in the home's walls, per the image below.

Photo by Barry Schwartz
Photo by Barry Schwartz

It's this scenario we're exploring in real time with the KB Home ProjeKt team, and we're grateful to be working with inspired partners at KB Home, namely, (left to right) Jacob Atalla, vp of sustainability, yours truly, Nick Franklin, executive vp of strategic operations, Dan Bridleman, senior vp of sustainability, technology and strategic sourcing, and Tom Silk, senior vp of marketing and communications.
The KB team sees modularity, componentization, and a carefully engineered real-time and over-time interplay between the envelope and a home's systems as its strategic pathway to learning how a home can be a home of the future in 2020, 2050, and beyond.

The KB Home ProjeKt showcases NZE performance, wellness, resilience, and affordability as part of its essential value offering.
The KB Home ProjeKt showcases NZE performance, wellness, resilience, and affordability as part of its essential value offering.