Two of the most critical factors facing housing construction today are labor and inefficiency. And, while there are no one-shot, sure-fire solutions, Pittsburgh-based home building startup Module is working on disrupting both with the launch of the Last Mile Lab, a place for product and process innovation and workforce training.
This one-two punch is perfect for the housing challenges that need to be solved in Pittsburgh, and can be a template for other cities that are even more desperate for similar solutions.
The Last Mile Lab operates in partnership with the nonprofit vocational school, Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, to 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 Brian Gaudio, CEO of Module. “She had first-hand experience facing the challenges of being a woman in an industry when 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 kicks off this summer for five individuals at the Institute’s carpentry program, and will include several modular construction education sessions. The first three modular construction education sessions are engaging and interactive with a field trip to a modular factory in western Pennsylvania, a site visit to ongoing modular construction projects, and job shadowing opportunities.
Other groups also have created programs to address the lack of diversity in the residential construction market in Pittsburgh. Juan Garrett is the executive director for the Riverside Center for Innovation and is supporting Mayor Ed Gainey’s initiatives for more affordable housing in the city with workforce development programs for minorities and the underprivileged.
He teamed up with building products supplier 84 Lumber on an education and training program to help minority entrepreneurs understand the residential construction process. 84 Lumber is offering quarterly webinars on basic processes in the industry, such as how to read a blueprint and how to frame, to give minority business owners a pathway to work on the city’s much-needed housing.
Innovation And Construction Efficiency
Tom Murphy is the former mayor of the City of Pittsburgh and currently the senior resident fellow for urban development at the Urban Land Institute and visited one of Module’s homes. He believes that pushing the envelope of innovation in housing is essential.
“The struggle for how to do affordable housing is one of the critical issues facing our country,” Murphy said. “The innovation happens around the construction techniques and around the ownership models – how you own the house or how you finance the house. I focus on home ownership because it has historically been and will continue to be the major way of wealth generation. If you look at the numbers of white versus other ethnic populations, there is a big difference historically in terms of home ownership. Intergenerationally, it means that wealth is not passing down in other ethnicities.”
The city is doing well on employment growth, up nearly 4% in 2021, according to Robert Dietz, senior vice president and chief economist at National Association of Home Builders. The healthy job market will mean a need for more housing.
Dietz’s data shows single family permits up 24% in the Pittsburgh MSA in 2021, and up so far in 2022. However, multifamily construction isn’t as positive with numbers down 15% in 2021, and down slightly in 2022 — a much needed area for more efficiency and affordability.
The Last Mile Lab will be used to test, validate, and implement new products and methods to build more sustainable homes by exploring new building products and installation methods to improve offsite homebuilding. It also will serve as a working site to finish Module homes, and to ensure they meet high standards, including energy efficiency, design integrity, and finish quality.
“We are very excited to embark on this collaboration,” said Donta Green, the executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh. “Module brings a much-needed model of affordable and accessible housing to the Pittsburgh region. Through this partnership, Trade Institute students will be exposed to new opportunities in the Module field of sustainable and energy efficient construction.”
Murphy recalls his tour of a Module home as a very attractive, sustainable solution that will be part of important discoveries around how offsite construction can be more efficient and higher quality than onsite builds. He also believes that the process and the materials Module uses are contributing to energy efficiency that has an important impact on the ability for someone to own or afford a home.
“There is an analogy with automobiles,” said Murphy. “Seven or eight years ago, people said 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 as early as the third quarter this year, when Module plans to involve a select number of “Innovation Partners” from the building products and construction industry. Those 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 building product partners with initial selections slated for the end of the second quarter.
The first projects the Lab will focus on will be testing interior and exterior finishes, including installing exterior siding installation in a controlled environment, as well as some interior finishes such as tile work and backsplash in a controlled environment.