This new duplex sitting on a formerly vacant lot in Pittsburgh has just two floors. But if the owners ever need more space in the future, the roof of the building can be removed, and another box can be set in place in a day to create a third floor.
“Just imagine adding another Lego block,” says Brian Gaudio, cofounder and CEO of Module, the startup that designed the home and the removable roof.
Module sees right-sized houses as one way to help address the problem of affordability. The company’s units start as small as 500 square feet (the average new house in the U.S. was 2,687 square feet in 2015), which keeps the initial cost down. If a family needs more space for children or in-laws or a rental space, the modular design could make it less expensive to build an addition.
While the company also makes homes without removable roofs, the inspiration for adaptability came from developments in South America, where Gaudio, an architect, had worked on a documentary about the local housing crisis. In some areas, families couldn’t get mortgages, so they bought very small houses by necessity.
“You basically could only buy as much as you had saved up,” he says. “So people could buy a one- or two-room home, and then over time expand it as they were able to save more cash.” Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena formalized the idea, designing “incremental” housing with a basic frame that could flexibly expand. Gaudio decided to adapt the idea for the U.S. market, beginning with his hometown of Pittsburgh.
The homes are built in a factory near Pittsburgh and then delivered on trucks to vacant lots, which the company helps source for potential buyers. The city has more than 27,000 vacant lots; Module says that it can work most efficiently when it builds on multiple adjacent lots at once. “You’re bringing a crane to the site and you’re paying for shipping the units from the factory,” Gaudio says. “So the cost of shipping something and having a crane for a day can be distributed over more units when we are building a block’s worth of homes versus just a single home.”
While other companies that use modular construction have argued that it can help make housing more affordable by lowering the cost of construction, Gaudio says that as a tiny startup, they’re not yet seeing large cost advantages to the construction method. But it does save time: Workers were able to complete the newest homes over the winter, while it was snowing outside, and then deliver them in March, where they are currently being finished. Gaudio estimates that the whole process is roughly 25% faster than traditional construction.
It also allows for better quality than building on-site. Module partnered with building science experts from DuPont on the new homes to optimize the building envelope for efficiency, so owners can save energy and heating and cooling bills. (DuPont wants to understand how it can adapt its own products for factory construction and also wanted to work with Module to better understand how modular construction could help make homes more affordable.) The homes meet the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home Standards, meaning that they’re so efficient that they could be powered solely by renewable energy.
The company installed its first house, a small one-bedroom home, last year. The newest three homes, including the duplex that pilots the company’s new removable roof concept, will be finished in July. Two of the homes will be sold at market rate, while one will be priced at around $184,000, making it more affordable. Gaudio wants to continue using a similar model of mixed-income development of multiple homes, first on other sites in Pittsburgh, and later in other cities. “I think, especially because of what’s happening with COVID, that the world is going to need more affordable housing, not less,” he says. “And there’s going to be a lot more housing-vulnerable populations.”