How modular buildings can fight housing crisis

Eva Talbot is an architect and U.S. product director for Modulous, a construction technology firm creating the first globally scalable model for the design and delivery of affordable and sustainable homes. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: Tell us about your interest in design. Were you a creative kid? Did you always know you wanted to go down this path?

Eva Talbot: I can’t think of a time when design wasn’t a component of my daily life. I’m an architect by training, and I’ve been interested in the built environment from early childhood. I grew up on a dilapidated dairy farm with 10 acres, a bunch of outbuildings, and an endless supply of junk. I had the freedom to build the structures I wanted to build and just create things. Making spaces is something I have always enjoyed.

My mom is a fiber artist who raised me with an appreciation of tactile craft, so I had the freedom to go outside and be messy, and no one cared. But then I would return to the inside of the house and the threads of historic craft started to come together. I became really interested in systems, because even weaving thread is a system.

What led you to the architecture field?

Taking systems and applying them to design and creative endeavors led me to what I’m doing today.

I attended the University of Detroit Mercy, which has a small but amazing architecture program. You don’t learn what to think in college, you learn how to think. I learned new approaches to creative problem-solving in the real world.

When I first started working as an architect, I was detailing and designing these high-rises that you see on the cover of magazines. At first, I thought it was so cool. But then I realized what wasn’t so cool – we just weren’t realizing any efficiencies in these buildings. That was the beginning of my pivot from traditional design delivery to where I am today, which is about taking my love of systems and deep complexity and applying it to better building design.

What are you working on today? Is it modular housing?

At Modulous we are building a technology platform that enables the delivery of high-quality, sustainable multi-family homes, at scale and pace, globally. One aspect of my work at Modulous is that we are designing and delivering standardized housing modules – like Lego boxes that plug in side-by-side and top-to-bottom. But there is so much more complexity in that system because, fundamentally, when you’re designing a space that someone lives in, you have many different stakeholders. You have the people who are going to live there. You have the people who are going to build it. You have the people who are going to pay you to do the work to get it onto the site. And then because it’s manufactured, you’ve got assembly, manufacturers, and factory conditions. We also have an intense focus on sustainability and digitization.

And from all that, you still want to create something beautiful that is attentive to the needs of the person who is ultimately going to live there. I really think designing living spaces is one of the most intimate acts that you can give a person who you’re never going to meet. It’s not just a question of whether the HVAC system is sustainable, or whether the contractor can put it together. Do people want to live here, and can they live here for a long time?

It’s very complex to deliver something that feels simple, and that’s where the beauty of complexity really is. We’re applying technology as part of a larger system to enable the rapid development of housing, and it is an incredible challenge.

How would you describe Modulous’ mission?

Modulous is a construction technology company that was formed to address the global housing crisis while reducing the climate impact of real estate development. We believe that all humans should have access to sustainable, affordable, safe homes. And we know the best way to do that is to digitize the process and take an asset-light approach, which lets us enter much smaller markets and target places around the world that need housing most critically.

How do you think it’s going to impact the built environment and the future of architecture?

In my previous job there was a lot of fear that digital technology was going to do away with all the architecture jobs. I think those fears are completely unfounded. What it’s going to do is enable us to build the components of projects faster, and those components are going to be well thought out, they’re going to be well-coordinated, and they’re going to be able to plug in on-site. Then there’s an entire scope of work that you don’t need to worry about anymore. Instead, you can focus on things like the street edge of this project. You can focus on “place-making” and do the best job you can with that because you’re not fussing around with things like the toilet stacks. There is a critique of modular technology that it’s going to result in the same building replicated everywhere, and that’s just not true.

What is a day in the life of the U.S. product director at Modulous?

I wake up at six in the morning and get both of my kids out of the house. Then I ride my bike to work in Seattle, where I sit with the other members of our U.S. team. On any given day, I am coordinating with our design partners and our consultants on mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, fire, and life safety. Because it’s still a building you need to live in, we have very real design constraints, so we’re constantly refining and consolidating complexity. I am coordinating with our design director to ensure our pilot projects are meeting client and market expectations. Finally, I’m talking to innovative materials providers to see what we can adopt to support our goals of sustainability and constructability.

Are you leading both the physical and digital efforts?

Our main software hub sits in the U.K., but I am leading the translation of the physical to the digital for the U.S. market, which is interesting and challenging because we have so much regional variation here in the U.S. in terms of the climate and the way things like land zoning and feasibility studies are handled from place to place. Leading that and building a team to help facilitate that translation has been exciting work.

How does your process help speed up construction and get these houses quickly into the marketplace?

Today we speed it up because we control the construction and assembly off-site, which is a clean, dry, safe place where people can just work faster and with more precision. A kit of parts is designed for local assembly without requiring a highly technical workforce. And once our modules are delivered to the site, they’re fully weatherproofed. Our speed right now comes from the asset-light approach, the off-site construction, and local assembly.

As we start to fully integrate the physical kit of parts with digital software it gets even more interesting. There is so much documentation and so many roadblocks at the jurisdiction level to get things built in the U.S. Many projects die before they even get off the boards because it takes a year and a half to get a permit. But if software enables a product to be repeatable, there are opportunities to pre-certify our solutions – everything from the proprietary wall panels to the way a project is financed – so that everything’s already checked off for permitting. There’s a level of quality assurance baked in, which is something the U.K. market already has, but the U.S. market does not.

What do you think is the future of data-driven design in architecture?

The possibilities are endless, but I think we’ve all been waiting for the right tool to come along for the AEC [architecture, engineering, and construction] industry. Repeatability is not well supported at the software level, and that’s why the digital solution we’re working on is so important to us. The desire is there across the industry, and once the tools are available, it’s really going to take off.

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