In their FutureHAUS prototype for the home of the future, Joe Wheeler and his team at Virginia Tech have created a sophisticated modular kitchen unit that requires the detail and precision that factory manufacturing provides.
Courtesy Virginia Tech Center for Design Research In their FutureHAUS prototype for the home of the future, Joe Wheeler and his team at Virginia Tech have created a sophisticated modular kitchen unit that requires the detail and precision that factory manufacturing provides.

Thinking about the future of how we live may conjure Jetson-like ideas and smart homes that know what you need and when you need it.

Some of those high-tech features are already going into homes, some as after-market options and some as part of the builder's or developer's design.

But technology is constantly improving, consumers’ expectations are changing, and residents' demands for technology are becoming more urgent. As a result, current tech at some point, perhaps soon, will no longer be able to meet the demand.

“The market will start demanding smarter components in a home,” says Joe Wheeler, co-director, Center for Design Research, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “There will have to be a whole suite of components, and they'll have to be manufactured, because the technology in them will demand the precision of a manufacturing site.”

Right now, there are hundreds of different apps to control various parts of a home, but few, if any, of them speak to one another. In the future, however, as consumers seek even more-sophisticated technology, housing providers will need to look to prefab construction, experts say.

“Conventional construction would be very limited as we move into the digital age, when [we'll] expect more and more from the performance of our homes,” says Wheeler. “Designers are now designing spaces and can see the whole composition of the building as they design the spaces. New software has the ability to 'componentize,' or separate the design into components."

Courtesy Virginia Tech Center for Design Research

Where Does 3-D Printing Fit In?
Three-dimensional printing is sexy and becoming more popular, but it most likely won’t be able to provide suitable solutions for future housing structures, suggests Tom Hardiman, executive director at the Modular Building Institute.

“Three-D printing is having some impact now, in terms of developing smaller-scale models to better explain projects,” Hardiman says. “[But] as far as 3-D printing as a substitute for construction, I think we're a long way from that.”

Wheeler agrees that 3-D printing will influence the manufacturing process, but not wall systems and structures.

Roger Krulak, CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Full Stack Modular, concurs that 3-D printing will have its place in modular building.

“Three-D printing is coming and will definitely find its way into prefabrication,” says Krulak. “Initially, I believe we'll see made-to-spec pieces, which are printed to facilitate unique conditions caused by buildings [being] manufactured off-site. Eventually, I imagine that printed parts will decrease the complexity of manufacturing buildings.”

Overcoming the Housing Deficit
In the next decade, experts predict, prefabrication will see even further advances. Wheeler thinks that, eventually, Apple or Google will create a house that will run off of proprietary, plug-and-play hardware and software and have options for one, two, or three bedrooms while incorporating entertainment, HVAC, and security products.

Virginia Tech created this multi-unit housing prototype using modular cartridges.
Virginia Tech Virginia Tech created this multi-unit housing prototype using modular cartridges.

“It’s hard to say what changes we’ll see by 2025,” says Hardiman. “I think in eight years, contractors and owners that are not embracing modular and off-site fabrication as a significant portion of their business model are going to struggle to survive. By 2025, if a large contractor hasn't embraced off-site construction for at least 25% of their workload, I wouldn’t expect that company to be in business by 2030. And if it’s a multifamily contractor, that figure needs to be closer to 50% to 75%.”

Krulak compares the future of building housing to processes already evident in other manufacturing industries. “I predict that the parametric process used to create the built environment will be as integrated as in many [other] industries, with highly optimized manufacturing like with smartphones, cars, airplanes, and so on,” says Krulak. “We're way behind, and the deficit of housing is growing. We have got to get out of the 19th century.”

Krulak also predicts prefab will capture at least 25% to 30% of the market in dense urban areas in the next 10 years.

For more on how modular construction is shaping the future, visit www.multifamilyexecutive.com/mfe-concept-community.