Saturday, December 4, 2021

As housing costs rise, another Seattle apartment project tests a new way of building

In one corner in Belltown, a crane swinging a thin rectangular panel into place looks like an unmistakable bit of everyday construction activity. But what’s inside the panel remains open to the casual observer.

“When they set up the panels they put radiant heat into that apartment,” Arlan Collins said, noting. It took about three and a half minutes, then the crew moved on to the next one.

Collins is CEO of Sustainable Living Innovation, the developer of this planned 15-story apartment tower that used hundreds of panels along with heating, electrical and plumbing equipment that were built at the Tacoma factory.

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Set to include 112 apartments, the project is the latest experiment in modular construction, an ongoing effort in the building industry to bring the capacity of a factory to a job site and reduce time and cost. The technology allows off-site employees to panel at the same time that others prepare the development site.


In Belltown, the crew guiding the floor panels on Tuesday will continue the action hundreds of times, alternating between built flooring and laying wall panels.

“We are building a building like you would build a car or an airplane,” Collins said in an interview.

Sometimes built with blocks stacked like Legos and other times mounted with panels as walls and floors, modular construction has caught the eye of developers and policymakers to streamline housing construction, Especially valuable West Coast cities are facing housing shortages. Still, the question remains how much these technologies can save.

SLI’s all-electric apartment building has a lot to do with the environment. The tower will have hundreds of solar panels on the exterior, water and heat recovery systems and other capability. According to SLI, the building is the first high-rise apartment tower anywhere to meet net-zero energy standards set by the International Living Future Institute, which has also certified Bullitt Center.

An artist's rendering of a 15-story apartment building in Belltown, Seattle.  Upon completion, the building will have 112 units, of which 27 units will be designated as economical.  The building is a 100% electric building with no natural gasoline lines, no fossil fuels on site and 600+ on-site solar panels.  (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

SLI, which reported this spring, had raised nearly $30 million from investors, built a similar building in the university district and plans for others, including a downtown emergency service center for people experiencing homelessness. Is.

The Housing Office of Seattle will provide partial funding for the DESC project as part of an effort to support sustainable supportive housing developments that promise time and cost savings.

“I think we are all very disappointed with the time it takes to build housing in a community,” said Sondra Nielsen, director of property development and facilities at DESC.

DESC plans to open the building in March 2023. Nielsen said the project’s expected construction timeline is “shy 15 months”, compared to the typical 15 to 17 months. “We hope we can do better, but we won’t know until we do,” Nielsen said.

Modular construction has gained traction as developers look to rein in costs, said Christopher Tomei, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.

Construction projects like skyscrapers can sometimes take up to two years. Modular construction has the potential to reduce schedules by 30% to 50%, according to industry groups.

But the strategy has risks. Moving panels or building blocks to site can add to the cost. For companies building new factories to make their panels or blocks like Lego, the upfront cost is very high, Patomi said. Local regulations can lag behind new technology, and a month saved in one phase of a project can easily be lost in another.

Daniel Stoner, who has developed low-rise apartment buildings using Lego-style technology known as volumetric modular construction, said he hopes to save time but spend about the same in construction costs. .

“Our experience was the exact opposite,” Stoner said.

Stoner said that building two Seattle buildings is about 15% to 20% cheaper than building projects with traditional methods. But the necessary training, allowing for hang-ups for new types of construction, and the pandemic stretched the timeline.

Financing new construction technologies can be difficult. Some lenders “treat modular technology as untested or speculative and they are hesitant to finance it,” Stoner said. (Still, he’s optimistic. Stoner is planning another building in the same style in Lake City.)

According to the city, the “cost driver” for SLI projects has been associated with securing appropriate additional private financing for projects. This represents an essential startup cost that, as seen with other new organizations, can be reduced once replication is in place,” said the Seattle office of housing spokeswoman Miriam Roskin in a statement.

For now, modular projects will face challenges facing the entire building industry: supply-chain havoc and labor shortages.

Container ship congestion along the West Coast has affected SLI’s “product delivery as usual”. Roskin said.

SLI’s Collins says the company is looking for ways to save time and costs. “We expect it to be faster as we build the next one,” he said.

According to industry statistics, across the industry, modular construction became more common from 2015 to 2018, but remained less than 4% of the market.

“There’s a lot of effort to apply manufacturing to housing production,” Tommy said. “What is not clear is the route to determining which of these can actually achieve scale and be replicated?”

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