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7339 43rd Ave S. Seattle, WA

Cubix at Othello

45,193 sq ft80 Building ModulesUnder Construction

Driving Innovation in Affordable Housing with Modular Construction – Cubix Othello Modular Setting Event

On August 16th, 2019, a large group had gathered at the project site in South Seattle near the Othello light rail station; architects, engineers, developers, investors, community leaders, representatives from the City of Seattle and the Seattle Housing Authority as well as curious on-lookers. They were about to witness something that had rarely been seen in Seattle – erection, and assembly of a micro-apartment building using a new and innovative method of construction.  What was unique about this build was that it was assembled using modular construction.   The 6-storey apartment project would be erected in only 8 calendar days with  80 modules and 6 modular stairs towers being stacked on top of a  concrete podium creating 85 suites for future residents of the Othello neighborhood.

Was everyone witnessing what could be a possible solution to the housing crisis so many North American communities are currently struggling with?

(See  Modular Housing Can Save Time, Money and also The Modular Model Can Factory-built Homes Solve the Housing Crisis?)

The Cubix Othello Modular Box Setting  Event

NexGen Housing Partners and Jackson | Main Architecture partnered with Metric Modular and Acc-U-Set Construction for this build, better known as the Cubix at Othello Project. Metric Modular manufactured the modular units for this project at their Agassiz, Canadian facility. The 70 modular apartment units they built were then shipped to a staging site just south of Boeing Field in Washington State where a final inspection was completed on each unit. The last leg of their 156-mile journey was to the project site in Seattle where they were crane-lifted into place by Acc-U-Set.

This was a unique project and the joint collaboration and high level of engagement between all parties resulted in the idea of hosting a set viewing event at the project site to demonstrate to industry, city officials and community members how modular construction can drive the future of affordable multi-family construction. This event allowed the attendees to witness the next milestone of this project – having the modular units crane-lifted and set into place. It may be compared to witnessing someone Lego-build a home right before his or her eyes, but on a much grander scale.

“Setting the modular boxes is an important milestone as it marks the transition from the factory setting to revealing how the final building will look,” stated Craig Mitchell of Metric Modular.

Touring an SEDU

The modular boxes that were crane-lifted are better known as small efficiency dwelling units (SEDUs). SEDUs utilize an ultra-efficient design to provide a high degree of livability for residents. The Cubix at Othello project is the second residential project to utilize modular design and construction by the owner and developer NexGen Housing Partners and Jackson | Main Architecture.

To better demonstrate modular construction, the project team also wanted to provide the 85 attendees an opportunity to tour one of the SEDUs so they could see how these modular units arrive at the project site nearly move-in ready.

Attendees learned that 70 of the 85 apartments were built off-site at Metric Modular’s factory and they left the factory 90% complete with everything from backsplashes and appliances to even towel holders! Onlookers were able to witness the level of detail that went into these near rent-ready units before they left the factory. Once set, interconnects such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC and mechanical systems would be completed by the site team.

This event gave many a better understanding of what modular construction was but a question lingered in the air. Why would the partners for the Cubix at Othello project choose to use modular construction and build most of this apartment complex off-site rather than the traditional method of building on-site? The project partners were eager to share their answers.

Modular Construction – Sustainable, Efficient and Economical

This set viewing event was used as an opportunity showcase the benefits and advantages of modular construction and to educate why modular construction is a viable option that will help address the housing crisis.

“Modular construction turns affordable housing dreams into reality by creating efficiencies in the construction process,” says Daniel Stoner, CEO of NexGen Housing Partners. “Inclement weather hasn’t slowed us down. Construction mistakes have been minimized. Quality control has been closely monitored. An entire buildings’ worth of finished apartments were completed in about 40 days in the factory, ready to be shipped to the Othello neighborhood.”

In addition to better efficiency, which correlates with lower costs, modular construction also leaves a greener footprint behind.

“A lot of the conversation around the benefits of modular has been cost and time,” explains project architect John Morefield of Jackson | Main Architecture, “but I think ‘green’ is also a big component. The sustainability aspect of modular construction is often overlooked.” Because most of the work was completed off-site, the overall demand for resources was reduced. The process required smaller crews on-site, minimal materials needing transport and less waste was produced overall than traditional construction.

Modular Construction and Affordable Housing – The Next Great Partnership?

Changing the way things are done always comes with challenges. This is no different with modular construction.. But, opportunities to discuss these challenges at events like the Cubix at Othello site viewing event helps debunk misconceptions and accelerate discussions on necessary changes to code and city bylaws to keep up with the evolution that is taking place in the construction industry.

Industry leaders such as NexGen Housing Partners and Jackson | Main Architecture are partnering with companies like Metric Modular and Acc-U-Set to provide a compelling alternative when tackling the challenge of finding affordable housing construction solutions. Modular Construction is sustainable, efficient and economical. With many communities affected by the current housing crisis, the Cubix at Othello project team are hoping their efforts will help drive the conversation of how modular construction can provide affordable housing for those communities in need.

The Cubix at Othello project will feature 85 apartments including studio and one-bedroom units ranging from 280sq.ft. to 475 sq.ft. with 20% of the units being leased to residents making between 40-75% of the area’s median income. Opening day is anticipated for early 2020. 

The Cross Border Journey of 40 Modules

In the early hours of July 7, 2019, two flatbed trucks arrived at Metric Modular’s manufacturing facility to begin a journey that everyone on the Cubix@Othello Project had been anxiously anticipating. The modules built at Metric Modular’s manufacturing facility in Agassiz, BC were about to embark on a cross border, one-way road trip to Seattle, WA!

 

A Detailed Journey Begins

 

This road trip was not as simple as grabbing your passport and driving to the border. There was tremendous logistical planning that went into moving a wide load “apartment unit” down a highway and across an international border.  And not just one module but 40 modules needed to make their way to the USA for this project. Many details required consideration even before construction of the modules began.  One such consideration was tracking all the components that went into each module.

Bringing goods across an international border can be complicated. Being thoroughly detailed in what was being transported into the USA was very important for a smooth journey. Because the modules were manufactured in Canada but their final home would be in the USA, the team at Metric needed to keep track of every component that went into each module for the required cross border declarations. Every item such as plumbing parts, doors, toilets, fixtures, appliances etc. had to be recorded and tracked.  And these components varied with each module so those variances needed to be tracked as well. That was a lot of components to track!

Additionally, loose ship materials had to be tracked separately, as items that were not fixed or attached (items such as close up materials and ship loose appliances) to the modules were subject to duty if they were not manufactured in North America.  That created even more detailed tracking! But, the tracking requirements did not end there.  US Customs also required the origin and quantities of each component as well as the costing, module dimensions and weight to be provided.  This level of detailed tracking began right at the beginning of this project so a seamless cross border entry could occur.

 

Mod Shipping Schedule

 

“There is a time and place for everything.”  This proverb perfectly describes the complex scheduling and planning that was necessary to accurately define where and when each of the 40 modules would start their journey to the USA.  The project site in Seattle required the modules to be received in a specific order and upfront planning and clearly laid out roles and responsibilities were key to the success of this logistical component.

The Metric team coordinated with the Seattle installation crew to determine which modules needed to be made accessible first and by what date.  This predetermined schedule helped determine how the completed modules were placed in Metric’s holding yard prior to transport. This important logistical step helped provide a seamless flow of the right modules being transported to Seattle’s laydown yard at the right time.

Mods Awaiting Pickup

 

The West Coast can have its fair share of rainy days so once the modules were complete they were wrapped in thick poly to protect them from the elements. They were then each marked with a serial number that indicated their location within the building according to the craning plan.  This number helps the craning crew and the transport company identify the next module in the sequence to be craned and transported.

Once poly-wrapped and numbered, Metric’s yard trailer temporarily placed the modules on wooden cribbing blocks in the manufacturing overflow yard to await pickup. The height of the blocks and spacing was intentionally set for transport loading purposes.  By strategically raising the modules off the ground it allowed the truck deck to slide underneath the module for easy loading at time of pickup and provided minimal downtime for the transport company. But before the modules were picked up to start their journey, they needed their “passports”.

 

 

Paperwork to Cross the Border

 

Cleary the modules do not need passports to cross the Canada/USA border, but what they do need are specific forms and documents completed to enter. Metric Modular worked with their longstanding customs broker to compile all the necessary paperwork required to allow transportation of the modules into the USA.  To ensure the modules would have a smooth journey from their manufacturing facility in Agassiz to the project site in Seattle, Metric needed to supply the following documentation to their customs broker before the trucks arrived at the border:

  • Commercial invoice
  • Customs clearance
  • Certificate of Origin with all itemized components as required by the North American Free Trade Agreement
  • Special documentation as required (for instance, microwaves are considered radioactive material and required a separate certificate)
  • Anything required to get modules to the USA

Documents had to be sent to the agent 24 hours prior to the scheduled arrival of the modules, so good communication and coordination between the Agassiz factory, the transport company and the customs broker were instrumental in preventing any delays.

Loading the Modules onto Flatbed Trucks

 

With documents in order, transportation commenced. When a flatbed truck arrived, the driver first had to measure the module’s exact dimensions and the distance between the wooden blocks to determine where to accurately place the truck deck. With his unbelievable driving skills, he backed up the truck and then maneuvered the deck precisely underneath the module and adjusted the height of the deck with a hydraulic airbag system.  The module was now loaded.  It was then restrained to the deck anchor points with transport strapping in order to avoid shifting or moving during transportation.  Ready to roll!  Well, not quite yet as the truck driver required some company for this road trip.

Permits & Pilot Cars

 

The Department of Transportation requires pilot vehicles for oversized loads. These are cars that escort trucks with oversized loads along its journey. The number of pilot cars required for each trip and positioning depends on the type of road/highway, time of day and overall dimensions of the modules, adding complexity to the logistics plan.  Single-trip permits were required every time a module left the factory.

With trucks loaded and pilot cars ready, the modules were ready to start their journey “home”.

 

Pilot cars work with and transport drivers as a team, staying connected by radio, as the pilot advises the truck driver of conditions all around them. All trucks that are hauling oversize or overweight loads must have a strobe, flashing or rotating amber light mounted to the roof that is visible from 360 degrees at a minimum distance of 200 meters (656′).

 

Road Transportation and Design Considerations 

 

The complex scheduling, planning and detailed tracking was integral for this component of the Cubix@Othello Project.  But it also went all the way back to the details in the manufacturing of the modules that helped in the smooth journey.

Transporting modules by road creates movement in the modules that is likely more than what they would see during a seismic event. Because of that, transportation requirements are one of the initial design constraints when undertaking a modular project.  The design team must take into consideration width, length, height and weight restrictions of every module in order to create the final modular design. The modules therefore, must be designed and built to very high structural standards to preserve the integrity of not only the modules, but also of all the finishing components that go inside. Therefore, transportation requirements are an integral part of a modules journey, right from the beginning.

 

Lessons Learned

 

Planning and collaboration is intrinsic to modular construction and it is even more so when dealing with cross-border shipping. It is also very important to have clear communication with all parties involved to define scopes and responsibilities and define a clear strategy to make the process flow efficiently. Some of the key items to consider are:

  1. Choosing a transportation partner who understands all the complexities involved in the import/export process as well as the transit regulations and road requirements. This includes:
      • Mod size, weight, height restrictions
      • Road restrictions/curfews + pilot vehicles requirements, as well as understanding logistics around each border entry point
      • Understanding of crossborder documents + paperwork required at the border
  1. Minimizing loose ship items significantly reduces time and paperwork administration
  2. Creating a shipping schedule based on the craning schedule and ensuring the transportation company is clear on the sequence of the modules
  3. Implementing an after-hours access plan so trucks can load modules day or night when they arrive at the plant

 

Completed Milestone

 

As each module left the manufacturing yard to start their journey to their new home in Seattle, the team at Metric Modular got a bit emotional.  Just as parents get emotional when they send their kids off to University, Metric got emotional too as this marked a key milestone for the Cubix@Othello project. Two countries, one border, countless team members, 40 modules, 40 trips, and a good few pilot cars driving down the Interstate 5 in a span of 2 weeks and this Cubix@Othello project milestone was complete.

***The project team consists of NexGen Housing Partners (Owner/Developer), Jackson | Main Architecture (Architect), Metric Modular (Modular manufacturer), and Acc-U-Set Construction (Modular installation and transport)

Increasing Housing Supply Through Community Engagement

Multi-family housing developers often face skepticism or outright pushback from the surrounding community members, especially in areas with rapidly increasing population density. This should surprise no one. New residents with options generally choose to relocate into neighborhoods which seem suitable as they are, while longtime residents grow accustomed to their now-familiar surroundings. In both cases, the prospect of rapid or extensive neighborhood changes—particularly when they come without consultation, or often even advance notice—predictably triggers negative reactions.

Seattle’s Design Review process empowers residents to express their reactions to proposed projects “on the record”. Resident opposition can slow a project substantially; trigger costly redesign requirements; or even halt construction altogether. The few developers who may not have experienced these reactions firsthand have still heard the painful stories. As a result many developers sour on community engagement, viewing it as a minefield to be avoided whenever possible.

We understand this reaction. As owners of Cubix at Othello, our philosophy and experience has been the opposite. NexGen Housing Partners, with the help of John Morefield of Jackson | Main Architecture, has had the great fortune to work with the remarkable Othello neighborhood community. Questions and suggestions from representatives like Mona Lee, Daphne Schneider, Dick Burkhart, and many of their colleagues demonstrate their deep commitment to the Othello neighborhood and appreciation for the challenges it faces. In particular, without more multifamily projects, the neighborhood redevelopment will increasingly displace families who have long made Othello their home. Learning from them helps us be responsive, and frankly, better developers and property managers.

We began meeting with Othello community representatives shortly after purchasing our site in 2015. Neighbors were eager to hear details of our plans for Cubix at Othello, and they offered a number of thoughtful suggestions. These included design elements like trim colors, modulation details, and amenities. They asked that some units be larger than studios, to better accommodate couples and small families. And they wondered what plans we had to mitigate street parking congestion. Happily, because our meetings began so early in the development process, we were able to address these requests and do so in a manner consistent with our vision for the project. We believe that these accommodations resulted in better community relations. While neighbors appreciated the accommodations themselves, perhaps the more important factor was their feeling genuinely consulted about the project. As a result, we believe they have come to think of NexGen more as civic partners than as stereotypical, “greedy developer” adversaries.

Aside from this consultation in venues like community meetings and design review boards, we also make an ongoing effort to spend time in the neighborhood, learning about what makes it special. Since 2017, we’ve been proud sponsors and enthusiastic participants in the wonderful fair the Othello community holds each August. Every chance we get we bring our investors to Othello via light rail, then dine with them at one of the many fantastic local restaurants. The pho at Huong Dong is one of our favorites and we may have enjoyed a tad too many pastries at family-run Le’s Deli & Bakery. These activities give us wonderful opportunities to converse with hundreds of residents who might not participate in design review or community meetings.

So how effective have these efforts at outreach been for us? Very effective, we think. One tangible measure: every comment offered at our design review hearing supported our project. We take great pride in this result, which as far as we know is unprecedented among (often controversial) micro-apartment projects.

Developers should take note that as of July 1 2018, community outreach became mandatory for new Seattle projects. As detailed on the SDCI web site, “All projects going through streamline, administrative or full (board) design review now must conduct community outreach before their early design guidance meeting.” Our own experience leaves us viewing these requirements as less a burden than an opportunity. Especially if they are carried out as early as possible in the process, genuine community engagement results in better buildings, with less drama, fewer costly design changes, and reduced risk of expensive delays. And that’s not only good for developers! By providing more housing in a city that desperately needs it, it’s good for Seattle as well.

In a future blog post we will salute another key stakeholder in the success of Cubix at Othello: our construction lender, Nina Webster of Amalgamated Bank. We met Nina when she was hanging out a Seattle shingle on behalf of New Resource Bank, a fellow mission-aligned bank based out of California which was acquired by Amalgamated in 2018. Nina has visited the site numerous times and spent time at the Metric factory, where our apartments for floors 2 through 6 are nearly complete and ready to be shipped to Othello at the time of this writing.

Nina says: “We are pleased to have worked with NexGen Housing Partners to help bring a bright next chapter to the Othello community. NexGen Housing Partners has made a clear commitment to putting the community first from the start, ensuring the long-term success of the building and neighborhood. Finding a developer focused on affordability, access for small families, transit options and sustainability is hard to come by. As America’s socially responsible bank, this is exactly the type of project that we are excited to help make possible and Amalgamated is proud to support organizations, like NexGen, who are working to make a positive impact in their communities.”

Stay tuned for our next blog post guest authored by Nina.

Submitted by: Dave Hanson, NexGen Housing Partners
May 16, 2019

Advantages of building a prototype before manufacturing begins

Prototype for Cubix at Othello, a modular multi-family project in Seattle

A prototype is a representation of a design produced before the final solution exists. It allows the team, including the client, architect and other key stakeholders to better understand how the product will look once finished.

After Jackson Main Architecture completed the design, which NexGen Housing Partners (project owner) approved, the team at Metric Modular began constructing three prototype modules that included the following types of units designed for the Cubix at Othello project:

  • One one-bedroom unit
  • Two studio variations

One of the main advantages of modular construction is that it shortens the construction timeline significantly. As a result, every detail has to be planned very carefully. The prototype allows all details to be seen together, and it offers an opportunity to get everyone on the same page about how the design comes to life. Imagine a prototype as a dress rehearsal before a big production: costumes, make-up, props, music all come together to give a solid idea of what the final production will look like…

The Visit

In February, professionals from NexGen Housing Partners (project owner), Jackson Main Architecture (architect) and even Amalgamated Bank (construction lender), traveled from Seattle to visit Metric’s manufacturing facility in Agassiz (BC, Canada) to see the prototype units. The interdisciplinary group had the opportunity to walk through the units and complete an extensive checklist-driven inspection. Every participant provided critical feedback for Metric to process and incorporate before the actual construction of the modules began. This ensures minimal deficiencies and maximizes the full benefits of the factory assembly line.

Findings

Below are some of the items the team identified and corrected during this prototype tour:

  1. Kitchen faucet: chose a substitute model that had a better arm angle to prevent overspray
  2. USB charger port: changed the location and placement of the port to accommodate tenant’s natural choice
  3. Lighting: altered the number and location of ceiling fixtures
  4. Space optimization: made small changes to make the space more livable such as moving the stove a few inches to enhance overall room flow and make it more functional

The prototyping process allowed us to make a mistake once, catch it, and avoid replicating it in each of 70 suites!

Advantages of Building a Prototype

Seemingly minor details can cause major headaches without proper planning

Essential to this process is a high level of engagement and communication from everyone involved in this project. More than ten busy professionals carved out nearly an entire day to inspect the prototype units. Prototyping is one of a multi-phase process Metric employs to produce a high-quality product, on-time, and on-budget. Central to high client satisfaction is fostering an environment of collaboration and trust, exemplified by the prototype inspection day. Metric is excited about playing its part in successfully completing the Cubix at Othello project and the positive impact it will have in the Othello neighborhood in Seattle.

Want to see how the modules are set?

Don’t miss the modset event this August!

Submitted by: Metric Modualr
May 5, 2019

Cubix Othello Metric Factory Tour!

Have you been craving a virtual walking tour of a modular factory? Now is your chance!

Walk the factory floor with John Morefield of Jackson | Main Architecture as he discusses our latest modular project – Cubix Othello. John takes you on a tour from framing to finish and explains how modular construction is a little different than what you would expect.

 

Submitted by: John Morefield, Jackson Maine Architecture
April 30, 2019

Metric Modular bringing over 40 years of experience to the Cubix at Othello project in Seattle

Modular construction is a method of building in which the main components (modules) are assembly line manufactured in “truck-sized pieces” in a climate-controlled factory. Finished modules are transported on specialized trailers to construction sites and crane-set on to foundations to create entire buildings.

There are a number of things that we’ve learned. This accumulated experience, these things that we’ve learned, we are now bringing to the super-cool Cubix at Othello project!

 

Every building is, of course, different, but standardized modular components can be assembled to create custom developments of different heights and sizes. Maximum allowable heights for wood-frame modular buildings can vary by local building code and jurisdiction; for example, in British Columbia, codes are now changing to allow heavy-timber buildings to be built up to 12-stories high, while in Washington state, current regulations allow for wood-frame modular buildings up to 6-stories.

Through pre-manufacturing, modular construction sites are now becoming more points of building assembly using small, highly specialized teams rather than places where developments are slowly, stick-by-stick, hand-built in the traditional way with huge crews of construction workers. The result, of course, is that complex buildings are completed much faster, with less site impact, and with a far greater ability to control quality and building performance.

I’ve been in the modular building world for over twenty years and, over that time, it has been really interesting to see the growth of the industry and especially the growth of understanding of how complex buildings can be de-risked through the use of pre-manufacturing. Modular buildings de-risk the entire building construction process in three important ways:

Completion timing de-risked: Because a factory, by its nature, has to run on a precise schedule, the timing of the factory-assembly of modular building components is highly predictable. Modules are usually manufactured while site foundations and civil works are being done. Weather conditions become less of a factor. Through the double-streaming of the construction process, with factory assembly and site works at the same time, building completion timelines are reduced, and project completion milestones can be scheduled more precisely.

Cost de-risked: Module costs can be very accurately assessed prior to construction start. We know precisely what labor and other inputs are required, for example, for the installation of an HVAC system or a window or any other building component. In a factory environment, the cost to frame up a wall system or install a plumbing fixture is exactly understood. With much of a building made up of pre-manufactured modules, construction costs are known upfront. Metric’s factories are not subject to the levels of construction cost escalation often seen in today’s building environment. With the higher level of planning required prior to manufacturing start, change orders are rare.

Building envelope de-risked: With building codes incorporating higher energy performance standards, greater attention is required in the construction of building envelopes. Factory environments, with their good lighting conditions, quality assurance systems and high safety standards, allow for a greater level of attention to details around such things as window openings, wall assembly penetrations and flashings. Even temperatures inside the factory mean that peal-n-stick membranes or high-performance tapes are installed in ideal temperature ranges. Dry conditions ensure that assemblies are never rain soaked and, if desired, the factory is able to pre-test assemblies to ensure that, ultimately on site, building envelope performance is assured.

Modular construction offers advantages over traditional building methods with the more efficient use of materials. Careful planning allows for the pre-ordering of materials such as drywall and wood for framing applications in precise dimensions resulting in minimized waste. Because the factory is an indoor environment, only products and materials that do not contain environmentally hazardous components or high levels of volatile organic compounds are used.

With the trend of young workers choosing other career paths, traditional construction companies are experiencing a growing shortage of skilled trade workers who would rather not have to work outdoors year-round. Factory assembly work is steady, clean and safe, and so is inherently different from site construction. Because of this, Metric Modular is able to draw from a wider pool of workers resulting in a team that is likely more ethnically and gender diverse and who tend to stay with the company longer.

When I first started at Metric, it was often difficult to convince builders, developers and architects on the benefits of utilizing modules in the assembly of important buildings. Those early adopters who did try out modular often encountered steep learning curves but, in the end, were also often rewarded with the benefits that the system provides. It has been really interesting to observe, as time progressed, as complex modular developments sprouted, and as companies such as Metric Modular proved the viability of modular, that there has now been a huge surge in interest in this form of construction.

In speaking with architects, developers and large construction companies, I’m seeing a growing understanding that in order to de-risk the achievement of building envelope performance, cost certainty, and timing predictability, modular construction is a logical choice.

With Metric’s years of modular construction experience, and with that built-up knowledge that we’ve been able to bring to this development, it is going to be so exciting watching Cubix at Othello rising up!

Submitted by: Tom Faliszewski, Metric Modular
March 28, 2019

Modular Construction

Welcome to our first blog post on our newest project, Cubix @ Othello! I’m Daniel Stoner with NexGen Housing Partners. NexGen is excited to bring this innovative, new apartment community to the Othello neighborhood of Seattle.

Who are we? Our company, NexGen Housing Partners, builds and manages apartment buildings in the Seattle area. Our mission is to provide innovative, green, affordable, market-rate housing throughout Seattle, under the brand of CubixTM Apartments.

In today’s housing crisis, “affordable” and “market-rate housing” may seem like an oxymoron. And for most apartment developers, it is increasingly unattainable as land and construction costs skyrocketed over the last several years. So, how can “affordable” and “market-rate” co-exist in the same project? One answer to that question is by building small efficiency dwelling units (SEDU’s) primarily in up-and-coming areas of Seattle. These units range from 230 to 280 square feet, about the size of a typical hotel room (containing its own bathroom and small kitchen), about 20-30% less than a typical, market-rate studio. This means an Amazon custodian, for example, making $45,000 a year can still live within a 15-minute light rail or bus ride from work, rather than drive an hour each way from the suburbs, adding to the region’s already clogged freeways.

Another answer to the housing crisis is controlling construction costs. When a construction project costs less and takes less time, desperately needed apartments come to market faster and cheaper. As any econ 101 student will tell you, rising construction costs (and longer time needed to build) ultimately leads to higher rents. So, in this climate of skyrocketing costs, how do we find innovative ways of controlling those costs to maintain affordability? By utilizing modular construction in the building process, we manage costs and shorten the construction process, bringing units to market faster and more affordably.

So, what is modular construction? Imagine if we built cars the same way we built apartments. Imagine how inefficient that would be, to bring in each trade to the car dealership, one at a time, to put the wheels on, put the engine in, to install electronics, and so on. Now imagine building an apartment the same way we build cars: where box after box roll through a factory line with each station specialized in one task. The first station might be where pre-framed walls are installed. Next station plumbing; next station electrical; drywall; paint. Until eventually it comes out the end of the line, a completed apartment. That’s how modular construction works.

I followed the modular building industry for about ten years; I toured several factories and immediately saw the benefits of building in a controlled environment, where inclement weather won’t slow or stop the job. Construction mistakes are minimized; quality control can be closely monitored; an entire buildings’ worth of finished apartment boxes being completed within 30-40 days, ready to be shipped to the site. I was sold on the concept and knew that when the right site became available, I was going to give it serious consideration.

However, I wasn’t naïve to the fact that few developers were choosing modular construction. In fact, over the last ten years, there have been only a handful of modular construction projects in the Seattle area. And none of those developers did a second modular project. Why not? Was it an indictment of modular technology or of those who were building with it? I studied many of those completed projects, learning what problems they encountered, speaking with the subs about their challenges and experiences. I concluded that the learning curve of modular technology is STEEP. Assembling a building with ’Legos’ versus traditional stick-built construction is a radical shift, creating a whole host of questions to be answered: how do you make structural connections? How do you connect all the mechanical/electrical/plumbing? How do you get sub-contractors to bid on something they’ve never done before? We concluded that it was unrealistic to decide after one project whether modular is viable, when our lack of experience affected the metrics of success so dramatically.

If we were going to pursue modular, we needed a more long-term conclusion, once we understood modular like the back of our hand. So, we created a three-project thesis for answering this modular viability question. The first: the proof-of-concept, the second, design a system intended to “rinse and repeat”, and third, apply the system.

In 2015, We acquired a site in North Seattle, not far from Northgate Mall, that met all the criteria for modular construction. We acquired the land for cheap, so we knew we had some cushion to make mistakes and still be OK. If we were ever going to do modular, this was the ideal candidate. So, in early 2016, we pulled the trigger and made application to build our first modular building, a 108-unit, 42,000 sf ,4-story building, Called Cubix – North Park. The next 18 months involved getting the city up-to-speed on modular, negotiating a contract with the modular builder, educating subs on what we needed from them, convincing a lender to loan on a modular project, and working incredibly closely with our team to anticipate and eliminate issues. In April of 2017, we broke ground on the site work, and on July 30, 2017, we set our first box. Within nine days, we set 36 boxes and a building was erected in very little time. That was the easy part. We needed another 15 months to work through a slew of issues due to our lack of experience, the city inspector not fully understanding the process, and our subs learning on-the-job. So, after 20 months of construction, we received our C of O a few weeks ago and, thankfully, leasing has been brisk.

If I went into this with one project in mind, I undoubtedly would conclude the brain damage took a toll on me and my crew. But knowing our goal is to do modular well by phase III, we also gained invaluable insight and experience on how to do it much better next time; all the pitfalls we experienced first-hand are addressed in phase II.

Our experience gained will allows us to build Phase II (Cubix @ Othello) more efficiently and with fewer problems. Cubix @ Othello is an 85-unit, six-story micro-apartment building off the Othello light rail station, which started construction in September. Since we were going through the permit process while Cubix North Park was being assembled, we were able to incorporate all the mistakes made and lessons learned into the Othello plans and know this one will go much more smoothly and closer to the original schedule.

In future blog posts we’ll go into more detail on the modular construction process, from the perspectives of the architect (Jackson Main Architecture), the modular builder (Metric Modular), and others. We are excited to keep innovating with modular construction and hope you enjoy learning about the process!

Submitted by: Daniel Stoner, Owner – NextGen Housing Partners
March 18, 2019

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