Making it Modular:

Source: Nashville Post

Developers deploy unconventional building methods, materials to yield reasonably priced options

Housing is a hot commodity in Nashville.

And with the average cost of a typical home in the region approaching $300,000 and workforce housing hard to find, two developers are using innovative construction techniques to keep prices within reach of middle-income buyers like teachers, nurses and public servants.

At the Tech Hill development located near The Fairgrounds Nashville on the city’s south side, locally based Core Development Services is at work on Alloy, being billed as the city’s first condo project to use modular construction techniques.

Nearby, on the edge of the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood at 2150 Byrum Ave., FMBC Investments is using repurposed shipping containers to construct 83 studio, one- and two-bedroom residences. That development, named 83 Freight, would be, if standing today, the city’s largest shipping container development.

Though new to Nashville, the unconventional approach to residential construction could take root, with its popularity bolstered by similar commercial spaces at the oneC1TY mixed-use development in Midtown and The 404 Hotel and Kitchen in The Gulch.

No, the unusual homes will not be cheap — the days of buying a new home in Nashville for less than $150,000 are no more. But they will not be priced starting at the aforementioned $300,000 mark either.

At Alloy, prices begin below $200,000. 83 Freight’s prices haven’t been set but will be “affordable,” according to Shawn Bailes, FMBC president and CEO.

Indeed, there is a growing need for reasonably priced housing inside the city, says Bailes. Offering such a product can be done only via unconventional materials and methods.

“With land and construction costs climbing every day, more developers need to focus on diverse housing options and not just more of the same. Our studio units fill a need for the person that usually has to go with one or two other people to cram into a house or bigger unit just in order to afford to live within the city. Hospitality workers, struggling artists and people just starting out on their own are just a few of the ‘missing middle’ workforce that we are attempting to serve with inner-city living,” he says.

Tech giant Google sees modular construction and industrial materials as part of the solution to the housing crunch in Silicon Valley. The tech giant has ordered 300 modular units from a startup called Factory OS, The Wall Street Journal reports. The modular homes will provide temporary housing for Google employees.

The potential benefits have caught the eye of local officials in the mayor’s office, but they say it’s too early to judge whether modular home development is something in which the city should invest public dollars.

Federal funding can’t be used to pay for modular construction, which is commonly associated with temporary structures. Private lenders may also have restrictions, says Adriane Harris, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

“Any time you say ‘modular,’ people go instantly to mobile homes,” she says.

Morgan Mansa, executive director of the Barnes Housing Trust Fund, notes, “It’s not that the mayor’s office is averse to innovation. We want it to be proven” before investing.

Mayor Megan Barry has committed $10 million in each of her proposed budgets for the Barnes Fund, which provides funds for nonprofit developers to construct or renovate affordable rental and owner-occupied housing. For the current “innovation round” of funding, developers competing for grants are encouraged to propose creative solutions, such as non-traditional designs and land use.

Funding comes from the $11.25 million sale of the now-demolished Nashville Convention Center, the site of which is being redeveloped as a mixed-use project by San Diego-based Oliver McMillan and Spectrum Emery of Brentwood.

Barry has also committed $25 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing. The funds will be used to acquire and rehabilitate multi-family rental units, to develop housing on city property and to adaptively reuse buildings.

The Barnes Fund is seeking a nonprofit partner to operate the city’s first community land trust, which is intended to increase the availability of affordable housing. The trust will retain ownership of land on which private residences are built. If an owner sells, the trust will share in the profits. In addition, the next owner has to be within a certain income range.

Despite the strong potential, incorporating modular construction methods and materials will require buy-in from both the Metro Council and the public, says Mansa.

But there are local precedents, with modular techniques in full view at Alloy. The building’s one- and two-bedroom “modules” are built in a factory in Pennsylvania and shrink-wrapped for shipment to Tech Hill, where they are stacked on the foundation and bolted into place. Alloy will have 82 condos.

“Modular construction was the creative solution Core implemented because of Nashville’s rising construction costs, a shortage of labor and a backlog at Metro Codes,” says Vice President Kent Campbell.

Alloy’s modules, designed by East Nashville-based EOA Architects, are 80 percent finished when they arrive. Appliances, toilets and sinks are already in place. Wedgewood-Houston-based Carter Group, the project’s general contractor, hooks up plumbing and adds exterior balconies and other finishes.

“Modular construction is faster, smarter and greener with a stronger, high-quality building at a competitive price,” Campbell says. “Construction time is reduced by one-third to one-half. The modules are built in a factory in a controlled environment [with] no mildew, no sitting in weather. It’s a greener process because it reduces material waste and is less disruptive to the project site and the neighborhood.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Core is considering modular construction for some upcoming projects. Though no decision has been finalized, the company — known for its progressive bent — has decided it likes modular construction.

“The condo buyer gets a high-quality, better-finished condo, built in climate-controlled setting. They can move in sooner after paying down payment and pricing is more competitive,” says Campbell.

Bailes is considering more developments similar to 83 Freight, for which he is using 173 shipping containers to construct the living units and a leasing office.

“With shipping containers and other modular techniques, you can … save time,” he says. “Furthermore, if you are building in a controlled environment — [in this case] a factory — there is no time lost to weather. And you could potentially cut down on waste and your quality can improve, too.”

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