This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Could the factory line help Utah solve its affordable housing crisis?
Utah lawmakers are crafting legislation that would make it easier to sell factory-built homes, known as modular or prefabricated housing, in the state. One report from the Modular Building Institute estimated modular construction saved 39% more time and 16% of costs. Currently, builders must go through each local jurisdiction for project approvals.
Advocates of the process hope the speed and efficiency of building homes in a factory could result in cost savings and ultimately make it cheaper for young families to buy starter homes.
What are lawmakers proposing?
“Modular or prefabricated housing production is a promising method to mitigate persistent supply chain shortages, rising material costs and significant labor shortages,” Rep. Stephen L. Whyte, co-chair of the commission on housing affordability, texted The Tribune.
Whyte is one of several lawmakers who has been working on legislation to create a statewide modular housing regulatory process.
The “current state and local building codes and regulatory processes are not well adapted to this form of manufacturing,” Whyte wrote.
Other states with modular programs certify that each unit type meets the building code, usually through third-party inspection agencies. Proponents say that creating a more streamlined, standardized process at the state level could save modular unit manufacturers time and ultimately create more of an incentive to sell in Utah.
Whyte is also working on a proposal to create a state infrastructure funding bank that would create a “low-interest revolving fund mechanism that can be used to fill in infrastructure funding gaps.”
What have other states done?
Utah would be among the last states to adopt a formal modular housing program — 37 states already have a process in place — explained Jon Hannah-Spacagna, the government affairs director for the Modular Building Institute.
Modular construction is 40% to 60% faster than regular construction, according to Hannah-Spacagna. That speed and the potential cost savings make it an appealing way to quickly address Utah’s affordable housing crisis.
When people first hear the term “modular housing,” they mistakenly think of double-wide trailers, Hannah-Spacagna said. “If you looked at a picture of a modular constructed building versus a site built building, you would never know the difference once it’s finished.”
It’s more of a process, than a product, Hannah-Spacagna said. Since the pandemic, states have become more interested in that process, but it still accounts for less than 10% of total construction in the United States, he said. Prefabricated homes are much more popular in countries like Japan.
What are the benefits?
Modular units could be an easy way for residents to take advantage of Salt Lake City’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance. Salt Lake City also was the first jurisdiction in the nation to adopt building codes that allow for prefabricated homes.
Prefabricated units could also prove helpful in rural areas where there aren’t many developers or construction workers, advocates of the technology say.
“I hope that modular construction can be one of the tools that allows developers and homebuilders to save costs that are then passed down to the homeowner,” said Jared Tingey, legal director for Utah League of Cities and Towns.
“Ultimately,” Tingey said, “in our mind, the goal of modular construction is affordable homeownership.”