Modular Coalition Creates Replicable COVID-19 Design

young homeless boy holding a cardboard house

The COVID-19 pandemic provides opportunities for the government and private sector to solve multiple challenges facing our healthcare, homeless and housing sectors. A group of industry collaborators offers a solution.

Many modular home builders across the nation have responded to the needs for patient beds resulting from COVID-19 by adding a healthcare product into their line of offerings. Others, such as the Modular Mobilization Coalition (MMC) have banded together to take a collaborative, standardized approach to providing a solution.

modular isolation unit

5 individual patient isolation rooms with 2 shared bathrooms

The MMC is made up of 20 small business, modular construction companies with a nationwide network of 25 factories, and a collective 4,000-plus employees. Together, over the past five years, MMC members have manufactured 200-million-square feet of buildings.

The MMC utilizes a standardized design platform focused on DfMA principles that simplifies manufacturing and on-site logistics, reduces waste, and lowers cost. This standardization allows the many small businesses that make up the coalition to quickly unify, scale, and ultimately provide the same solution all over the country. Where one modular factory may not be able to quickly produce 5,000 units alone, together the coalition can.

“We weren’t creating a design so we could build it. We were creating a design so everyone can build it,” says Vaughan Buckley, President of Volumetric Building Companies and a member of the MMC. “Our whole industry has come together in a way I haven’t seen before.”


Modular Construction Provides Collaborative Solution

future use of modular

Future use example for supportive housing, apartment

Modular construction allows for design adaptability of a single chassis. With this adaptability the product is able to serve many end use markets whether that is healthcare, supportive housing for the homeless, assisted living, apartments, dormitories, or hotels. The standardized units are built to USACE A2HC general specifications, FGI Guidelines for Assisted Living, and IBC/state building codes.

MMC’s unique solution addresses the two things that plague almost every on-site construction project: pricing and schedule. Their standardized, adaptable chassis is manufactured through a nationwide network that enables a transparent, fixed price to the buyer, as well as guaranteed scheduling.

The group is having ongoing conversations with HUD, FEMA, the VA, and Native Corportions, and have discussed with the Army Corp of Engineers and their regional directors about how to be better prepared the next time a situation like COVID-19 occurs.

It is also clear there is a disconnect between the housing mandated agencies and emergency management agencies. While people within an organization such as FEMA may care deeply about the affordable housing challenges, it’s not FEMA’s mission. Their mission is to mitigate and deal with emergencies. There needs to be more of a cohesive effort if we want better long-term solutions. This is another area where the MMC is driving collaboration.

“We need to provide [FEMA] with more solutions that provide more value, without complicating their mission,” says Buckley. “We’re not trying to make Emergency Management officials’ jobs harder. They don’t need to worry about the end-use of the product, they just need to know that it has one and that it’s a better investment. And then let the housing agencies come in after the emergency is over and take inventory and figure out where everything’s going and how it will be used.”

Housing Challenges

In January the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released their Annual Homeless Assessment Report showing “567,715 persons experienced homelessness on a single night in 2019, an increase of 14,885 people since 2018.” While some areas in the country reported decreases, many cities continue to be overwhelmed by the massive challenges surrounding homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that in 2019 there were 96,141 homeless individuals with chronic patterns of homlessess (“people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly, while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability”). 65 percent of those individuals were living on the street, in a car, park, or other location not deemed suitable for a living space.

Additionally, “the U.S. has a shortage of seven million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income.” according to The National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Healthcare Facilities

Rural communities have struggled for many years to maintain access to quality health care facilities and services. According to University of North Carolina research on rural hospital closures, at least 170 rural hospitals–each serving many surrounding towns–have shut down since 2005. Rural ZIP codes lost about 20 percent of their hospital beds between 2006 and 2017, based on a study from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG).

Enter COVID-19. While the pandemic will be a severe blow to the economy and livelihood of many across the nation, it has also provided an opportunity to respond to the housing crisis in a way that will not only serve immediate needs, but also provide long-term solutions for housing sustainability and attainability challenges.

The immediate pandemic response has included “conversion” solutions such as hotels, stadiums and gymnasiums that have been transformed into makeshift field hospitals. King County in Washington State reportedly purchased a motel for $4 million with plans to put an additional $1.5M into necessary renovations. It is unclear whether those renovations include post-pandemic reconversion.

While these conversions work, better preparation and long-term planning would allow us to do even more with taxpayer dollars. We have the opportunity to begin investing in solutions for housing attainability challenges now, instead of continuing to subsidize depreciating assets.

“As a whole, the U.S. was caught off-guard by the severity of this crisis and we must do better next time,” says Colby Swanson, Managing Partner at Momentum Innovation Group. “Investing in the future, especially during a crisis, can and should be done, but it will take better organization and more pre-disaster planning.”

An alternative solution should lean towards the investment in assets that will appreciate and provide sustainable solutions and serve a three-fold return on investment: crisis response, permanent supportive housing, and social benefit. The most cost-effective and viable solution is to build adaptable structures.

Solutions Must Be Sustainable

Historically, disaster spending as a whole has been shortsighted and wasteful. A high-quality, sustainable housing solution that provides immediate response needs, as well as a future end-use, is the most cost-effective use of disaster funds.

NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reported the U.S. was impacted by 14 separate billion-dollar weather-disasters in 2019 alone. Two years after Hurricane Harvey–the second costliest hurricane to make landfall on the continental 48 states since 1900–FEMA trailers originally purchased for around $65,000 each, were listed with sales prices ranging from $100-$5,000. The trailers, used for temporary shelter, were built from substandard building materials and had no plan in place for final use. It is also reported that over 40 percent of the trailers tested positive for toxic levels of formaldehyde.

In 2017 the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that a chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. In the same study, they showed that cost could be reduced to around $12,800, on average, when supportive housing initiatives were put in place. Investments in permanent supportive housing have decreased chronic homelessness by 30% between 2007 and 2014 (according to a Point-in-Time Count and Housing Inventory Chart reported to HUD by communities annually covering).

And while the Covid-19 stimulus package includes around $4 billion to be set aside for homeless relief efforts–that is less than half of the $11.5 billion that the National Alliance to End Homelessness projects say they will need–although “seven times their usual annual allotment of funds”.

“The reality that once the crisis is over, we can re-purpose this into housing for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens is really special,” says Swanson. “This is our chance to make a meaningful impact on the affordable housing crisis while simultaneously considering what’s right for the country and for the taxpayer.”

With the multiple challenges facing our healthcare, homeless and housing sectors it’s clear we need to start thinking differently. While modular construction currently represents about 3% of the market, government entities need to begin taking a serious look at its ability to create multifaceted solutions.

Solving these challenges won’t be easy, but working collaboratively we can focus on responsible spending and better long-term planning to build faster, smarter, and more sustainably.

Heather Wallace is a freelance writer and industry engagement specialist based in Seattle.