Building Electrification Meets Modular Construction In NYC Historic District

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Modular homes have long held wallflower status in the US housing market, confined mainly to rural areas and suburbs. Nevertheless, they could help push the building electrification movement into high gear. The missing link is a business model that moves the modular approach into cities, with the potential to address the housing affordability crisis while helping to decarbonize new buildings at a fast-paced scale.

Modular Construction & The Building Electrification Movement

Modular construction is a building method that involves fabricating components in a factory, then transferring them to a permanent building site for final assembly and finishing. It’s not a new thing and it is catching on in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. For some reason the US has been lagging behind, even though the modular approach can save a significant amount of time and money compared to traditional on-site construction.

In terms of the building electrification movement, the lag in modular construction is also a lost opportunity for rapid decarbonization. In modular construction, components consisting of whole rooms or parts of rooms can be outfitted with all-electric appliances and ventilation systems before they even leave the factory floor. This approach can leverage factory-style economies of  scale, centralization, and supply chain efficiency, similar to the way in which auto makers organize for rapid production.

Beyond building electrification, the modular approach is also credited with reducing greenhouse gas emissions during construction. The trade organization Modular Building Institute, for example, cites studies that show a savings on carbon dioxide emissions well into the double-digit range compared to traditional on-site construction.

Building Electrification Meets Modular

CleanTechnica had the opportunity to tour a new modular, townhouse-sized apartment building on St. Felix Street in a historic district in downtown Brooklyn last month. The visit provided some additional insights into the role that modular construction can play in building electrification and overall decarbonization.

The St. Felix Street project comes under the wing of the US startup Assembly OSM. It is a rigorous test case for urban modular construction, partly because the Assembly team had to ensure that the building complies with historic district specifications in New York City, including a brick-clad exterior.

Historic district or not, modular homes have to comply with local building codes, just like any other home. The Assembly team anticipates that successfully working in the challenging regulatory environment of New York City will showcase the ability of modular construction to work in other cities, too.

Though modular homes in general can run on any power source for cooking, heating, and ventilating, the St. Felix Street project was designed as an all-electric building including HVAC. The only exception is the gas backup emergency generator, as required by New York regulations for certain types of buildings.

Beyond Building Electrification

In addition to serving as a showcase for building electrification, the St. Felix Street project demonstrates how electrification dovetails with new energy efficient technology. With a combination of EPA EnergyStar-rated appliances, a modern HVAC system, and “high performance” exterior insulation, Assembly estimates a 70% energy savings in post-construction use of the building compared to conventional buildings.

During the visit, Assembly also emphasized that the project’s use of passive house energy efficiency principles in addition to the WELL building standards adopted by the US Green Building Council. WELL standards address the elements of human health and comfort on a holistic basis, including air, water, and light.

We also learned how modular construction can hep relieve neighborhoods from the noise and stress of conventional construction, especially in urban neighborhoods where construction-related street disruptions can raise the potential for increased pollution from traffic.

The St. Felix Street projects consists of eight components, sized to fit on a flat-bed tractor trailer truck. All eight components were fabricated in the Assembly factory in New Jersey over a period of several months, then loaded onto a convoy of trucks for transportation to the St. Felix Street site.

The components were transported, unloaded, and stacked together in a single day, sparing the neighbors weeks if not months of major construction activity.

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What About Manufactured Homes?

After a visit to the St. Felix Street site, we’re thinking that manufactured homes are another low hanging fruit for the building electrification movement. Like modular construction, manufactured homes are fabricated in a factory environment. They are also relatively popular, due to their lower cost compared to conventional construction.

However, it is important to note the differences. The “manufactured” part of a manufactured home has a very specific meaning. Manufactured homes used to be called mobile homes or trailer homes, until federal safety regulations under the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Standards Act of 1974 came into being.

Manufactured homes are built completely on a wheeled chassis, enabling them to be towed to a site. Due to their mobility, they are typically considered personal property, not real estate, though that can vary in some states depending on who owns the site.

Another difference is their stack-ability. Manufactured homes are primarily designed as single-story structures, which limits their application in cities. In contrast, modular buildings are compatible with multi-family housing and townhouse developments. They can also reach high-rise levels of construction.

During our visit to the St. Felix Street project, for example, we learned that Assembly anticipates that its modules can be stacked as high as 30 stories, though a height of 22 stories would be more typical. The company is currently planning the construction of a 15-story modular high rise on 117th Street in East Harlem.

Building Electrification & The Affordability Crisis

Affordability is another point of comparison between manufactured homes and modular construction, with the potential for impact on the building electrification movement.

Though manufactured homes are not cheap, they are generally far less expensive than conventional construction, which explains their popularity in the US. Unfortunately, that avenue towards home ownership may be closing. Local zoning regulations and a recent wave of disruptive behavior by new corporate trailer park owners may be putting a damper on the enthusiasm for manufactured homes in the US.

Modular construction can be pricey, depending on the taste of the client. However, Assembly notes that their cost-saving business model is compatible with income-related housing incentives in New York. In the East Harlem project, for example, 25% of the units will be regulated at 60% of area median income under New York State’s 421-a tax incentive.

During the St. Felix Street tour, Assembly also mentioned that the company is exploring next steps for future affordability-oriented projects with the New York City Housing Authority.

The Biden administration’s efforts to incentivize affordable housing could also help accelerate the building electrification movement. In February, Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a new package of grants aimed at boosting the nation’s housing supply, including several grants aimed at leveraging off-site construction.

See more CleanTechnica building electrification coverage here.

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Image: Assembly OSM has a factory-based modular construction plan that could help accelerate the building electrification movement (courtesy of Assembly OSM).


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3331 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey