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Opinion: Prefabricated construction could lead to more affordable housing   

Process of crane construction of new and modern modular house from composite sip panels against background with beautiful blue sky
Process of crane construction of new and modern modular house from composite sip panels against background with beautiful blue sky Getty Images/iStockphoto

The headlines about South Florida real estate convey an array of concerns from public officials, industry experts and residents alike. From the affordability of housing to labor shortages and from hurricane protection to sea level rise, the issues are complex.

As one of Florida’s largest construction management firms, we deal with these and other issues daily. However, Moss looks toward a future made possible by new technology, innovation and a paradigm shift in how we collectively think about housing and construction.

Over the past five years, Moss has worked with numerous utilities across the country, building 53 solar projects, totaling 3,400 megawatts. But the challenge to the construction industry is broader. We need to turn our attention to building differently to address affordability and resiliency.

As technology has disrupted almost every facet of life, housing is no different. Innovation, and next-generation logistics are bringing prefabricated buildings back into the spotlight. And while it has not caught on in Florida, we have seen a new wave of prefabricated construction that has sprung up around the country, from New York to the Gulf Coast to Washington State. From single-family homes that can withstand winds of up to 200 miles an hour to apartment buildings and hotels, the new “prefab” holds great potential for South Florida.

Prefabricated housing is not new, but innovative materials and concepts have opened the door to a new world. Think: IKEA meets Amazon meets multi-family housing.

Traditional building, from single-family homes of CBS construction to the tallest buildings on the skyline, are built almost exclusively on site. Buy the materials, store them, drive the pilings, pour the foundation, create the walls…electrical, plumbing, finishes. All very labor- and land-intensive, and expensive.

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Scott Moss, president of Moss construction firm. Jason Hook

IKEA perfected the concept of manufacturing parts and minimizing packaging and shipping costs to give end users a simple, quick and efficient assembly process. It eliminated the need for huge warehouse space and bulky and expensive shipping and gave consumers an alternative choice to traditional furniture purchasing.

Amazon capitalized on technology for another breakthrough. Rather than stockpile and maintain every product it sells, it is the sales point for numerous manufacturers, and Amazon or the manufacturers source the product to the customer as needed.

Applying these concepts, prefabricated construction can speed up construction, provide uniformity in quality, yield much more efficient use of labor, reduce costs, bring housing back to hurricane-devastated areas faster and open access to affordable housing.

Instead of bringing numerous building trades to a construction site in sequence, most of the work is done in factories and shipped as needed. The exterior walls, load bearing components, wind resistance requirements, plumbing and electrical systems, air conditioning duct work, wall panels and home amenities are designed, engineered and manufactured off-site for final assembly on site.

Prefabricated housing will transform the construction labor pool. Instead of shifting from job site to job site, work will be based out of production facilities serving multiple builders. This alleviates contractors’ constant need to ramp up and ramp down hundreds of laborers at each site.

Having prefabricated materials ready, recovery from the devastation to storm-ravaged areas could be accomplished faster and at lesser cost, with buildings that will withstand the next category five hurricane. This technology isn’t somewhere in the distant future: The New York Times has reported prefab homes are becoming more commonplace in storm-damaged areas of the Gulf Coast.

The appeal for this delivery method isn’t confined to residential construction. The concept is particularly appealing for projects that require uniformity. In the same way cruise ships, with their thousands of rooms, are built section by section and welded into place, the hotel industry, where hundreds of rooms need to be identical, has begun to embrace the process.

It’s not the solution to every hurdle. It will require tweaks to building codes to allow for pioneering techniques and materials. And it won’t replace the unique, iconic luxury buildings that grace South Florida nor high-end custom homes. But as developers and governments embrace the brave new world, prefabricated construction will open a new avenue of affordability and access to home ownership for many.

Scott Moss is the president of Moss, which he and his father, Bob, started in 2004. Moss employs more than 600 people, with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion.

Opinions here are those of the writer and not the Miami Herald.

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