There are a few things we obsess about on TreeHugger, including modular prefabrication, tall wood construction and digital design. One doesn’t usually find them all in one place in North America, but in Sweden, it’s almost the standard.
Lindbäcks, a 90 year old company in northern Sweden, is truly taking modular construction to new heights, cranking out apartments, condos, student housing and seniors buildings a rate of twenty units per week. The modules are 4150 wide [13’-7”] and optimally 8950 [29’-4”] long. The modules look superficially like they are coming out of North American factories, but it is a very different product.
The level of automation in the factory is way beyond anything you see in North America, where framing is done in factories much like it is done in the field. Here it is “screen to machine” – wood is fed into giant patented machines that feed, align and fasten the framing, to any level of complexity. There are no drawings and no tape measures; it’s all automatic, cranking out a wall every seventeen minutes, including windows (in fact the windows are laid down and the wall framed around them) and insulation.
It is all automated and industrialized like most modern industrial production in every industry except housing, which is still in the last century. Swedish toolmaker Randek has automated the entire process; compare the results out of this to a guy with a nailgun or a framing hammer.
Every component has been figured out; where in North America windows are essentially stapled into place from the exterior, these windows are installed with adjustable fasteners so that the window can be levelled perfectly and at the end of its useful life can be removed and replaced – from the inside. It’s designed for deconstruction. Similarly, the wiring is all fished through flex conduit so it is modifiable and upgradeable.
The company has embraced what’s known as lean production, which originated in Japan with Toyota, where they try to eliminate every kind of waste in their manufacturing flow. They look at every step of the process to maximize safety, quality and delivery.
The process is to keep order and to learn from mistakes. We clean the workplace, keeps track of the tools, and strive to do everything as rationally as possible, says Erik Lindbäck. It's about adding value without more effort than before.
In North America, most modules are constructed with platform framing, where the wall sits on top of the floor and the ceiling on top of the wall. But because Lindbäcks designs for up to six storeys high, there will be a lot of pressure across the grain of the floor framing, so the floors and ceilings are hung inside the walls. You wouldn’t think that it would be a big deal, but wood is stronger on its end, and just that little bit of compression is beyond their tolerances.
But the show is really on the sidewalk, where all these modules are being assembled into serious buildings. They are not cookie-cutter, all clad in different materials, designed by different architects.
The thing that both inspires and aggravates me so much is that this kind of mid-rise wood frame housing is exactly what we need in cities across North America from Seattle to Toronto to New York City.
It goes up quickly, is extremely energy efficient, very high quality and perfect, not for the downtown cores, but for those main streets now filled with one and two storey buildings. For new walkable medium density developments.
It’s built at what I call the Goldilocks density:
…dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.
Back in Sweden, Lindbäcks is building a new factory:
Located in Piteå harbor, this plant is designed with the demands of tomorrow in mind and will support the production of the most sustainable, and cost effective custom buildings we’ve ever produced. The factory’s design emphasizes sustainability, and has been designed to use renewable energy for the majority of our energy demand. At the turn of the year 2017/2018, we’ll commission this facility and triple our output.
And, by the way, fifty percent of their new hires for this factory are women.
It’s frustrating, looking at this and comparing it to what we build in North America, where we build it and how we put it together. Because Lindbäcks is doing the kinds of things we just dream about over here.