How a Lego Approach Could Help Solve Our Homebuilding Crisis
Adam Cohen is a pioneer in the North American Passivhaus housing ecosystem and founder of a building technology company, Build smart. Based in Canada, he lived in Nelson and is an Edmund Hillary Fellow.
OPINION: While in and out of New Zealand, I researched the country’s housing history and current building challenges.
The problem is multidimensional, and while many of these challenges are specific to Aotearoa, I can draw parallels with my home country of Canada.
One of these similarities, which is a double-edged sword, is that both countries are sparsely populated. Canada and New Zealand each have their major metropolitan areas, but also regions of large land masses dotted with small towns.
This population spread is why I am concerned that the government seems to want to tackle one of the dimensions of the housing crisis with centralized and expensive automated prefabrication facilities that require enormous throughput to stay active.
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While this model works well in the European Union, due to the proximity of these industrialized settlements to large populations, it does not translate well to Canada and Aotearoa. When it comes to construction in New Zealand and Canada, we need to think big and small, regional and urban simultaneously.
We know cities like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are experiencing housing shortages – and that’s of course where large-scale building precasts can make sense – but what about in provinces where the housing supply is also low?
The construction industry already faces issues such as a shortage of labour, complex compliance regulations, cost and supply chain issues with materials – issues that are magnified in the regions.
Even if a large-scale precaster ventures into the regions, local infrastructure such as roads and bridges often makes this difficult and adds to the cost and practical feasibility when transporting in prefabricated houses and machinery (semi- trailers and cranes) it takes to deliver a project. Not to mention the carbon footprint of transporting half-built homes to places like the East Coast or the Far North.
So what are the options for addressing housing shortages in less populated cities in rural or remote areas? As with most problems, it needs to be broken down into small, manageable pieces – literally.
Pieces and parts – the beauty of component manufacturing
Traditional prefabrication of buildings tends to focus on moving the custom design/pricing/construction process to a factory and automating it.
While this may mean better quality control, unfortunately traditional pre-engineered thinking does nothing to “optimize” the entire value chain from design to pricing and construction.
This is where component manufacturing goes far beyond the traditional thinking of prefabrication.
In component manufacturing, standardized kit parts are made in factories, but through the use of manufacturing standardization there is greater efficiency, which means lower costs.
This is where “thinking small” may seem counter-intuitive, but building a home doesn’t have to be something only skilled builders can do.
Imagine simplifying the building system to such a degree that it looks more like a Lego-style low-tech approach through small-scale production.
The government is slowly moving into this concept as they just released their proposed modular component rules, but let me elaborate on the benefits and how I’ve seen component manufacturing work in practice.
First, by standardizing components, it gives designers a kit of parts, “Legos,” if you will, to complete a design.
Pricing is also standardized, so the estimate is virtually instantaneous.
Second, manufacturing facilities are designed to produce these components efficiently, unlike traditional prefabrication which simply moves a custom designed, priced and built project to the factory instead of the site.
Finally, on the jobsite, these components are small and light enough that a four-person crew with a 4×4 forklift can build the project without the need for large trucks and cranes.
It may sound theoretical, but the proof is in the building. In 2017, after presenting my component manufacturing system at a Passivhaus conference in Christchurch, I was approached by a young Australian engineer who saw the potential and efficiency of the system.
He asked if I could help him develop an Aussie component system that also sequestered emissions.
By taking a similar “bootstrapping” approach (grabbing personal savings with minimal investment) that I had taken with my component system, we were able to create an emissions-sequestering component system with an initial investment of less than AU$50,000.
This system was installed in a small garage with a 2-4 person fabrication crew and a four person installation crew.
We have set up an international virtual workshop of small-scale panel makers in the United States, Canada, Australia and Aotearoa, and have been sharing our collective learning for the past few years.
We were able to leverage the collective learning of this international group to advance technology much faster than any of us could have done alone.
Matenga Ashby says her Kaikohe-based business, PreHomes, aims to help tackle poverty, disease and homelessness in Northland by helping whānau get a prefab home.
In New Zealand – a country that loves its DIY and is rallying around a community project – think a similar approach, using a component manufacturing system for building homes, would thrive, and what better place to start than the regions.
The IP and technology already exist, but to make a dent in non-urban housing supply, this is where a regional cooperation model is needed that shares technological improvements and failures.
Ideally, this should have both government support and industry support.
This would mean deploying a training system using existing training providers such as industry training organizations, and knowledge-based learning so people can tool themselves on component manufacturing while retaining enough design freedom to adapt to their specific housing needs.
Encouraging a collective learning approach – where people share their experiences, tips, tricks and failures – will not only improve the end product, but could also help strengthen communities as they join forces towards a common goal of building more. of houses.
It may seem like a lot of moving parts to activate a new building system in one or more regions, but isn’t that the kind of initiative the Provincial Growth Fund was intended for? To increase productivity, increase employment opportunities and social participation, as well as build resilient communities, while helping to achieve climate change goals?
We could keep trying to drive a round peg into a square hole, pursuing large-scale prefabrication facilities as a national response to housing. Or we could take a component manufacturing approach, breaking the problem down into small, easily transportable parts.
An approach that would allow remote and regional communities to upskill and take more ownership of the end-to-end construction process – dare I say it, at a lower price with a lower carbon footprint than its prefab cousin.
- This article was provided by the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF). Learn more about the EHF partnership with Aotearoa NZ for global impact.