Two of the most critical factors facing housing construction today are labor and inefficiency. And, while there are no one-size-fits-all, foolproof solutions, a Pittsburgh-based home-building startup Module works to disrupt both with the launch of the Last mile laboratory, a place for product and process innovation and workforce training.
This punch is perfect for the housing issues that need to be addressed in Pittsburgh, and may be a model for other cities that are even more desperately looking for similar solutions.
The Last Mile Lab operates in partnership with the non-profit vocational school, Pittsburgh Institute of Commerce, create pathways for women and minorities to explore opportunities in the modular construction industry.
“One of our co-founders, Hallie, worked for a women-owned construction company,” said Module CEO Brian Gaudio. “She had first-hand experience dealing with the challenges of being a woman in an industry where most people were white men. As a company, we want to create a more inclusive environment than the current status quo. »
The seven-week program will begin this summer for five people from the Institute’s carpentry program and will include several training sessions in modular construction. The first three modular building training sessions are engaging and interactive with a field trip to a western Pennsylvania modular factory, a site visit to ongoing modular building projects, and job shadowing opportunities.
Other groups have also created programs to address the lack of diversity in Pittsburgh’s homebuilding market. Juan Garrett is the executive director of the Riverside Innovation Center and supports Mayor Ed Gainey’s initiatives for more affordable housing in the city with workforce development programs for minorities and the disadvantaged.
He partnered with a building products supplier 84 Wood on an education and training program to help minority contractors understand the home building process. 84 Lumber offers quarterly webinars on basic industry processes, such as reading a master plan and scoping, to give minority business owners a pathway to work on much-needed housing .
Construction innovation and efficiency
Tom Murphy is the former Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh and currently the Senior Resident Scholar for Urban Development at the Urban Land Institute and visited one of Module’s houses. He believes in pushing the boundaries of innovation in housing.
“The struggle over how to create affordable housing is one of the critical issues facing our country,” Murphy said. “Innovation happens around building techniques and ownership models – how you own the house or how you finance the house. I focus on homeownership because it always has been and will continue to be. to be the primary means of generating wealth. If you look at the number of white people compared to other ethnic populations, there is a big difference historically in terms of homeownership. From generation to generation, this means that wealth is not passed on to other ethnicities.
The city is doing well on job growth, up nearly 4% in 2021, according to Robert Dietz, senior vice president and chief economist at National Association of Home Builders. The health of the labor market will mean a need for more housing.
Data from Dietz shows single-family permits are up 24% in Pittsburgh’s MSA in 2021, and so far in 2022. However, multi-family construction isn’t as positive with numbers down 15% in 2021 and slightly down in 2022 – a must-have area for more efficiency and price.
The Last Mile Lab will be used to test, validate and implement new products and methods to build more sustainable homes by exploring new construction products and installation methods to improve off-site home construction. It will also serve as a work site to complete the modular homes and ensure they meet high standards, including energy efficiency, design integrity and quality of finish.
“We are very excited to embark on this collaboration,” said Donta Green, executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh. “Module brings a much-needed model of affordable and accessible housing to the Pittsburgh area. Through this partnership, Trade Institute students will be exposed to new opportunities in the area of sustainable and energy-efficient building module.”
Murphy remembers his tour of a modular home as a very attractive and durable solution that would be part of important discoveries about how off-site construction can be more efficient and of higher quality than on-site construction. He also believes that the process and materials used by the module contribute to energy efficiency, which has a big impact on a person’s ability to own or afford a home.
“There’s an analogy with automobiles,” Murphy said. “Seven or eight years ago, people were saying electric vehicles wouldn’t be a big deal because there was no infrastructure to support them. Now they are everywhere. The same will be true for housing. We are at the beginning of a housing revolution on innovation.
The Last Mile Lab will be operational from the third quarter of this year, when Module plans to involve a number of “Innovation Partners” from the building products and construction industry. These partners will have the opportunity to test new products and construction techniques at the Last Mile Lab.
The Lab is currently offering an open call for product partners with initial selections scheduled for the end of Q2.
The first projects the lab will focus on will test interior and exterior finishes, including the installation of exterior cladding in a controlled environment, as well as some interior finishes such as tiling and backsplashes in a controlled environment.