Builder Magazine, October 16, 2020
Off-site construction firm BoxPrefab has partnered with Avenue CDC, an affordable housing nonprofit based in Houston, to create affordable, prefabricated homes for low- and middle-income families, starting with a pilot project at at 813 McDaniel St. in Houston’s Northline neighborhood.
While much of the BoxPrefab’s work is on the high-end luxury side, the firm’s co-founders, architects Rame and Russell Hruska, have worked closely with Avenue to create an off-site home design that not only meets the nonprofit’s targets for cost, durability, and sustainability, but also maintains a strong sense of design within the fabric of the existing neighborhood.
“We’re really passionate about ways that we can use this system to bring affordability to housing,” says Rame. “We understand the need for it, that’s something we’re passionate about as well. That’s what led us to work on this project with Avenue CDC and tackle some of the affordable housing issues. We want to deliver premium prefab in a way that’s reliable, transparent, and easier for people to do. At the same time, we need the scale and opportunity to help bring good design to affordable housing.”
The three-bedroom, two-bath home was completed in 90 days, or half the time frame of a similar site-built project. The home’s off-site construction reduced on-site impacts and waste, and eliminated weather exposure during the construction process. The envelope incorporates high-efficiency spray foam insulation and low-e insulated windows, clad with resilient, low-maintenance materials, including magnesium oxide siding on the rainscreen.
“One of the things about prefab or modular construction is that it’s designed to go down the highway,” Russell says. “So our houses are already tested to hurricane strength before they’re ever lifted, because you pull down to 65 with a headwind, it’s over 75 mph of wind pressure on the building. So modular is already from a durability standpoint a superior solution.”
The floor plan makes use of the principles of universal design, with a low-threshold shower, transition-less and slip-resistant flooring, lever-style door hardware, and light and bright finishes for greater visibility. LED lighting and low-VOC paint are used throughout the home, as well as efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances and a smart doorbell and security system.
To mitigate Houston’s flood concerns, integrated helical piers raise the home’s foundation above ground level. While this was not required for the site, the Hruskas felt it was important to ensure homeowners’ safety. “Being in Houston and wanting to be proactive about flooding requirements, this is a great way to do it,” Rame says.
The home is intended to be the first in a scalable line of properties within the range of affordability for families priced out of Houston’s housing market. Using the off-site process, Avenue intends to reduce its turnaround time on new homes, allowing the nonprofit to work more quickly and provide more homes for the community it serves.
“[Avenue’s] goal is to bring together a group of nonprofits to provide 50 houses in bulk, making a substantial commitment,” says Russell. “They worked with us to push pricing down, and better meet their affordable housing needs.”
“One of the challenges with urban infill affordable housing is that ... it’s hard to get scale,” Rame says. “So this is a way that, using prefabrication, we can bring scale and efficiency to scattered lots. We can do positive urban infill in a way that positively transforms a neighborhood while still keeping the scale and rhythm of a street. This creates less impact construction-wise on a neighborhood as well.”
Adapting to COVID-19
The pilot program home sold for approximately $265,000, with the sale closed in early March—just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the spring, the Hruskas had been in talks with Avenue, Habitat for Humanity, and the city of Houston about the next stage of their partnership—using some of BoxPrefab’s small floor plans as accessory dwelling units and affordable elderly housing. This fall, BoxPrefab was awarded a contract for a multi-unit prefab development project with a mix of home sizes, including one- and two-story homes with green space, created in collaboration with Avenue and the city of Houston.
“In addition to the design and construction of these homes, we also worked on the development layout and site planning through Intexure, the architecture side of our business,” the Hruskas said in a follow-up interview in August. “We see our work with Avenue as a positive collaboration and opportunity to develop innovative strategies aimed at solving real housing challenges in our community.”
While BoxPrefab has encountered challenges in maintaining distance in construction, as well as delays related to inspections, the Hruskas have found some advantages in their existing site-built process—including improved conditions and resources for workers, as well as limited site work. The company has also partnered with the state of Texas through Industrialized Housing and Buildings to perform remote video inspections.
In the process of improving its prefabricated construction process, BoxPrefab is continuing to pursue affordable housing of the caliber that informed the initial pilot home. “Our focus is on advancing quality in prefabricated construction,” the Hruskas said. “From that standpoint, we offer high-end luxury prefab and see ways we can help contribute good design and quality to other areas of the marketplace, including affordable housing. We believe that everyone deserves quality housing and good design and are excited about ways to achieve that in different aspects of the market.”