What is modular construction and could now be the time for Hawaii to start using it?

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Tens of thousands of people across the islands are in need of housing, but the supply can’t seem to keep up with demand.

That’s why a housing delegation from Hawaii is looking to Singapore where a company is developing designs to build housing complexes in a faster, safer and more efficient way. Off Grid Container Home

What is modular construction and could now be the time for Hawaii to start using it?

At the construction site on Ang Mo Kio Rise, a privately developed luxury housing project located in the central area of Singapore, workers are using a construction method they call PPVC or Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction.

Unlike modular or prefabricated homes that are seen in Hawaii where walls are sometimes folded up to make rooms, these units are crafted into concrete boxes.

It’s all built in an off-site factory where the modules are about 90% finished. They’re then transported to the building site where it’s put together — kind of like Legos.

During the delegation’s visit, lawmakers and housing advocates got to see workers assemble apartments in action, carefully using cranes to stack prefabricated boxes on top of each other. They even toured the stacked modules of mostly finished rooms — from the kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and more.

Looking around the marble and granite finishes, one wouldn’t have guessed it was modular, but when you break down the time it took to build — that’s where the difference lies.

United Tec, a Singapore construction company, said they can finish building one floor in just eight days — which is significantly less than the average time of construction through normal methods.

Thus, with Hawaii’s huge need for housing — some 7,000 now displaced by the Maui wildfires and the already 20,000 across the state who can’t find an affordable place to live — now could be the time to implement some version of modular or precast housing.

State Sen. Stanley Chang, who led the delegation of lawmakers and housing experts, said while this form of construction hasn’t been adopted at a large scale in Hawaii, it could help alleviate the need for more housing.

“I think that now we’re seeing a lot more openness to it, especially from the construction unions, because I think the realization is there that the need is so great that our construction workforce would need to grow a lot if we need to expand our housing pipeline by five times, which is what I think we need to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, Paul Watase of Mark Development Inc., which focuses on creating affordable housing in Hawaii, said modular could work in some circumstances.

“To me, you really save on the financing side because if you can just fly modules into place, stack it up, you can cut your construction time significantly and that financing costs can save a huge amount,” Watase said.

But he says this type of construction could be a double-edged sword.

“If modular housing can undercut our unions and our labor force, that labor force could disappear…We like to use the unions because we’re assured of the quality when we use them,” he explained.

Watase emphasizes this is what really hurts Hawaii the most: “Everything got to be shipped in. Right. And our cost of materials is way higher than the mainland.”

Still, lawmakers say the need to increase the supply of housing across the islands is a top priority.

“We have an urgent need for new housing and if we’re able to build a new building each floor only six and a half days, that is really quite an improvement over the existing traditional methods that we have here,” Chang said.

“That’s why I think that that’s going to be a big trend that we’ll be seeing in Hawaii in the future.”

While volumetric modular construction could be a possible solution to meet Hawaii’s housing needs, experts said this method would only make sense economically if there is a facility on island creating these prefabricated rooms. Otherwise, transportation and production costs could undermine the benefits of this form of construction.

What is modular construction and could now be the time for Hawaii to start using it?

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