While off-site construction faces many challenges to more widespread adoption, panelists were bullish on the future of the sector during the “Off-Site Construction Challenges and Opportunities” panel discussion during the International Code Council/Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Off-Site Construction Summit.
“We are seeing some movement in the acceptance of off-site construction, specifically on the manufactured housing side. We’re getting more involved with local jurisdictions with this system and showing them that you can get the quality as well as the affordability and minimal disruption to neighborhoods,” Phil Copeland, vice president of engineering at Champion Homes, said during the panel, which was part of the 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase event in Washington, D.C. “We’re bullish on the future and that the 9% capacity the modular industry currently has will get more traction, especially in light of site-built skilled trained labor shortages.”
Despite a runway for future adoption and the ability to aid the ongoing housing shortage, Sara Logan, vice president of design at Volumetric Building Cos., and Ken Semler, vice chair of the NAHB Building Systems Council and president and CEO of Impresa Modular, both highlighted regulations and codes as a major hurdle for off-site construction. Semler said the diversity of codes and manufacturing practices across the country continue to present challenges for the industry and adopting best practices or standardization is a major opportunity for the sector.
“It’s very difficult to train an engineering team to not only design to various zoning and building codes as adopted by the various states, but also to train them in various methodologies for those states,” Logan said during the panel, which was moderated by Ivan Rupnik, principal at MOD X and a professor at Northeastern University. “If there can be standardization, I think it would be helpful in the adoption of industrialized construction in the United States.”
Mike Moglia, director of the housing and building standards division at the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, highlighted education as both the biggest challenge and opportunity for more widespread adoption of off-site construction. Moglia said the sector often does a poor job communicating the value of off-site construction to consumers. While marketing and communication efforts are often strong within the industry, Moglia said the sector could improve its outreach to consumers to talk about the products used in off-site construction as well as the value and the process of off-site construction.
“We need to do a better job of explaining [off-site-built projects] are built under a strict quality assurance program that are regulated and overseen by third-party agencies. We need to talk to our builders, to our retailers who sell manufactured housing, [and] train them and inform them on the product they are selling,” Moglia said.
During the panel, Rupnik identified the standardization of terminology as an easy hurdle to clear that could combat the disparateness of off-site construction across the United States. Even in a single state’s program, the terminology used for off-site construction is inconsistent and terms that have different definitions are used interchangeably. Moglia said as part of his work in code training, drilling down terminology is of chief importance to reduce confusion from stakeholders, including finance companies and local officials.
"The term modular is a bit of a misnomer. There is no such thing as a modular home. It’s a home built using modular construction, it’s an industrialized home,” Semler said.
While acceptance and wider adoption of off-site construction may not happen immediately, Logan said she has already begun to see change in how projects are valued.
“We now know the value for these volumetric buildings is greater than the value of a stick-built building. We have data on that,” Logan said. “That is starting to change how money is lent. Banks are opening up how they view materials in a factory versus materials on site, [and] that’s a big change that we’re seeing [in the off-site sector].”