Adobe Stock / 13FTStudio

New programs and think tanks are digging into the issues holding housing back so that builders can start closing the gap between deliveries and demand. And, although there is a long way to go, new technologies and new design thinking are pushing in the right direction.

Danny Cleary looked tense as he watched the first prefabricated wall panel rolling off the assembly line in his newly opened factory near Montreal. He asked his production manager to hand him a tape measure. He carefully measured the left side of the panel, then walked around the assembly table and measured the right side and then across. “Quarter of an inch difference. The table needs adjustment,” he said quietly in French.

I had met Cleary a few years earlier. He called me after he’d joined his father’s midsize construction company and found out about my Grow Home design. “Most of the clients in our area are young, first-time homebuyers who can’t afford large homes. Your design will suit them,” he explained. His instinct served him well. Our conversation was in the late 1990s: In the following years his firm sold over 400 Grow Homes to become the largest builder in the region.

Even for a well-off builder like him, constructing a plant to produce prefabricated homes was a risky venture requiring a large investment. When we met I asked him about the switch.

“When I visit my building sites and see a bundle of lumber delivered, thrown on the muddy soil, and watch my framers assemble it in a rainy, snowy, or hot summer day, all in the open, I sense there can be better ways to construct,” he said. “Building a home in a quality-controlled, sheltered environment makes a lot of sense. I decided I could fabricate my company’s own homes for less and manufacture wall panels for other builders as well.”

Cleary’s attempt at prefabrication is not common in a North American homebuilding industry that is notorious for its conservative attitude. Numerous prefabrication units are built each year, providing ample opportunity for research and innovation, yet construction methods of low-rise, wood-frame homes still fundamentally resemble those of the 1940s.

The quality of building products has significantly improved but not the basics of constructing a home. In fact, monetary investment in research and development in the homebuilding industry is minimal compared to that invested in industries like electronic, automotive, or pharmaceutical. The reason? Lack of industry interest, market pull, and failure to address new emerging social circumstances creatively.

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