As I recently watched my 7-year-old nephew effortlessly assemble a fabulous building from Lego pieces, it gave me an idea about Boston’s housing needs. Maybe Boston officials and developers could learn something from him and those easy-to-use reusable blocks.
The city must find more ways to add inexpensive housing to meet the needs of a growing population while serving a middle-class market that is rapidly being priced out of town. Going modular is a good way to help accomplish that.
Modular construction is nothing new. But the technology has come a long way since the 1970s, when double-wide trailers lumbered down highways aboard flatbed trucks. Today, there are modular construction factories building architecturally relevant structures — from small homes to gleaming skyscrapers. Some of these factories are in the United States, but mostly they are found in Scandinavian countries, where this technology is widely popular.
Building conditions inside these climate-controlled factories are ideal. For example, it’s a lot easier to seal window to brick when you’re not battling an ice storm. But builders see even greater value in the speed of modular construction, which generally takes two-thirds the time of a regular construction project. This drives costs down, and quickens the creation of housing. And faster-paced building is crucial if we are to meet Mayor Marty Walsh’s goal of adding 53,000 housing units in the next 15 years.
One team of emerging architects, called studioMAUD — which recently won an innovation award from Northeastern University — proposes that Boston take modular construction to a whole new level. Rather than ship modular units from an existing factory in Pennsylvania and, soon, a new one in Brooklyn, N.Y., these architects are rightly suggesting Boston build a modular construction factory of its own to save time and money. A short animation on their website about the project is worth watching.
The founding members of studioMAUD aren’t just spouting theory; their living arrangements typify the problem they seek to solve. Chris Marciano and his wife share a two bedroom apartment with Marciano’s colleague Mark Monroe, and Monroe’s girlfriend. This alternative living scenario is not ideal, but it’s economical and provides added motivation for them to do something about affordable housing in the city.
A modular construction factory would also help the Boston Olympics effort. Cambridge architect Kyu Sung Woo, who worked on the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, accomplished what seemed impossible — he managed to design and get built 5,500 housing units in just 18 months. The construction also included three schools and a central community building. His technique used precast concrete, an early precursor to modular construction. Today, the area is a thriving community with about 20,000 residents. For comparison, Boston’s Back Bay, which is roughly the same size as Woo’s Seoul parcel, took about 50 years to build out.
Boston’s Olympics architect, David Manfredi, is looking to build on what studioMAUD is talking about. His idea is to create buildings that are reusable and even interchangeable. Manfredi wants to take temporary structures — like a much-discussed proposed stadium for the 2024 Summer Olympics — and repurpose their parts for permanent uses such as housing. He says that’s something that hasn’t been done before. Manfredi has assembled a team of engineers and experts, including people from the MIT Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Design, to study the possibilities.
We can learn a lot from this wave of professionals pushing for new ways to build Boston. It’s a necessity if we want to meet the bold goals that already have been set. But we can also take a lesson from my nephew and his Legos. Even when they sit disassembled in bins, he’s probably dreaming up something new and creative to do with them.
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.