UNDER THE LENS: A closer look with shelterforce

Building Differently: Can It Reduce Construction Costs?

Experiments to lower construction costs, from reusing shipping containers to 3D printing walls, have been happening for years. But are any of these approaches able to provide meaningful savings at scale?

An inside view of the 3D printed home while construction is in progress. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Center for Housing Research

Under the Lens

Building Differently

Experiments to lower construction costs, from utilizing shipping containers to 3D printing, have been happening for years. But have we found anything that will help us build affordable housing at scale, and for less? And if not, what will it take to get us there? We'll take a closer look in Building Differently, an Under the Lens series. The series launched in October 2021. Don’t miss a beat by signing up for our weekly newsletter.

Photo by Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 4.0

Housing prices are soaring again, and there’s a desperate need to build more housing, especially affordable housing. As we try to figure out how to make housing more affordable, it makes sense to look at how to improve everything that goes into the cost of producing it: Simplifying financing, and getting better terms. Allowing more density. Streamlining the zoning and permitting processes. Lowering land acquisition costs by prioritizing public land for affordable housing. Retaining subsidy with a property for the long term. Removing the profit motive from operations.

It’s no surprise that along with these approaches, many in the housing world are also looking for ways to make the construction of housing itself less costly. After all, construction costs are between 50 and 70 percent of the cost of a new housing unit.

Technical solutions that focus on the building process have the advantage of appealing across political persuasions and sidestepping difficult conversations about density, funding priorities, and the right to housing. In addition, as a climate reckoning looms, processes that might be less wasteful, more energy efficient, or more disaster resilient are also going to be increasingly relevant.

Experiments to lower construction costs, from reusing shipping containers to 3D printing walls, have been happening for years. But are any of these approaches able to provide meaningful savings at scale? And if not, what will it take to get them there?

In our latest Under the Lens series, which will run over the next three weeks, we’ll talk with affordable housing developers who are putting some of these methods to the test, and we’ll explore the implications for the field.


“Building Differently” is Shelterforce’s latest Under the Lens series.
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Building Differently