This supportive housing project in Los Angeles could be the future of the construction industry

lifting module into place
© Hope on Alvarado

You have heard of "fast fashion." Get ready for fast architecture in container-sized modules.

The important thing about shipping containers is not the box, but the little corner castings which I have noted, which make it "part of a global transportation system with a vast infrastructure of ships, trains, trucks and cranes that has driven the cost of shipping down to a fraction of what it used to be."

Buildings don't fit in containers, so construction is one of the few industries that has stubbornly remained local. But that hasn't stopped architects and builders from trying.

Hope on Alvarado Exterior© KTGY Architects

Now a new housing project for the homeless is being assembled in Los Angeles out of "modular components". It is designed by Peter DeMaria (known to TreeHugger for his shipping container architecture and who is now chief design officer at HBG/Azria, the builder), with KTGY Architecture + Planning. But don't call these shipping containers; they are "steel modules that have the potential to radically transform modular housing" and which "leverage the dimensions and material of containers for highly efficient transporting and construction." The builder, HBG Steel, describes them, avoiding the C-word.

In our massive HCD [California Department of Housing and Community Development]-approved overseas factory, buildings are constructed under the scrutiny of US state inspectors and quality control. Buildings are then shipped over the sea and to the site, where HBG or another general contractor will crane the modules into place. The factory schedule is optimized for speed without sacrificing quality, producing precise structures down to fractions of an inch.

Module being manufactured© HBG Construction Corp.

They are made in China, which causes some people to worry about quality. I have been in Chinese factories and this is really not an issue any more, but HBG still feels it has to say that "they are inspected each step of the way down the factory line, and rejected if they do not meet the highest US standards for construction."

“The Hope On team has advanced technology using steel modules that have the potential to radically transform modular housing,” said KTGY Architecture + Planning Associate Principal Mark Oberholzer AIA, LEED AP. “While site work and foundations are done on site, the modules are manufactured off-site, with customized interior finishes and fittings, resulting in highly efficient speed-to-market. The Hope On system accommodates larger-scale buildings on shorter time frames.”

  • Modules are transported by truck to the site, crane-lifted and stacked into a single building.
  • Each apartment is composed of several modules, modified specifically for the project.
  • Floor-to-ceiling windows are completed off-site, as are interior fixtures and finishes such as drywall, tiling, bathrooms.

Interior view© KTGY Architects

The company was founded by the fashion designer Max Azria who died in May, and is now run by his wife. “Max thought about things on a drastically large scale because he knew that was the only way to really effect change,” said Lubov Azria, who has now taken over as CEO. “We honor him in fulfilling this vision and delivering housing to those in need.”

It seems appropriate that this revolution in building technology would come from someone with experience in the fashion industry, which is notorious for having shipped its production to countries with far lower labor costs and a far larger labor pool – and bringing it all back to North America in shipping containers.

As I have noted in a post on the history of modular housing, the industry started after the Second World War with 8' and 8'-6" foot wide trailer units, which were really too narrow for housing. Stewart Brand wrote in How Buildings Learn:

One innovator, Elmer Frey, invented the term "mobile home" and the form that would live up to it, the "ten-wide"- a ten foot wide real house that would usually travel once, from the factory to the permanent site. For the first time there was room for a corridor inside and thus private rooms. By 1960 nearly all mobile homes sold were ten-wides, and twelve-wides were starting to appear.

In 1964 the ISO shipping container was defined as 8' x 8' by 20', still the unit of measure (TEU, or twenty-foot equivalent unit). The entire system is designed around that measure, which was set for freight, not people. It's why shipping container architecture is so problematic; people have to cut out walls and piece them to get decent sized spaces. It's wasteful and expensive.

The genius of what DeMaria and HBG/Azria are doing is they are building new container-sized modules so they don't have to throw away walls, or put in extra structure; they just build what they need, tarp over the open sections, and get all the shipping economies that come from having those corner castings in the right place.

lifting container into place© Hope on Alvarado

Eight feet is still a lousy dimension, and as with most shipping container housing, there are thermal bridges everywhere. There are still lots of problems to be solved. But this is temperate Los Angeles, steel is indestructible, and it is meeting a real need for supportive housing.

Interior view with kitchen© KTGY Architects

“The partners of the Hope On developments have devoted themselves to perfecting this modular solution because we believe it holds great promise for the housing crisis,” said Aedis Real Estate Group President Scott Baldridge. “This is not just a one-off project. It’s a series of places created with a highly replicable design that delivers housing at a speed and scale required by neighborhoods in need."

But will it go upscale? For the construction industry, the genie is out of the bottle; this may be the building equivalent of what happened in the fashion industry, designed in North America, cranked out in factories in Asia, sold here.

Exterior of building© KTGY Architects

In 2011, when another company proposed this kind of production (albeit unsuccessfully), I wrote:

The logical and inevitable conclusion is that housing is no longer any different than any other product, but can be built anywhere in the world. The role of the shipping container in architecture will be to offshore the housing industry to China, just like every other industry. That is their real future. If you care about getting consistent, high quality housing that's fast and cheap, this will make you happy. If you care about all those jobs that have vaporized in the housing crash, it's a problem; they've just been exported.

I wonder if its time has finally come.

This supportive housing project in Los Angeles could be the future of the construction industry
You have heard of "fast fashion." Get ready for fast architecture in container-sized modules.

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