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Products, Design, and Assembly: Innovation Round-up

Finding solutions that reduce build time and cost motivate us every day at the Missing Middle Housing Fund. We are 140,000 units short in Oregon to serve our population and need to double our production from 15,000-20,000 units a year to at least 30,000-40,000 units.

Product, design, and assembly innovations are pivotal to achieving this goal, along with our other core focus areas of policy, labor, and finance innovation. Workforce housing doesn’t pencil out due to rising material costs and construction methods that are dependent on a tight manual labor market. Innovations and out of the box solutions are required to revolutionize the way that we approach housing production for those in the 80%-120% average median income range. Like any radically new idea, housing innovators face uncertainty, risk, and resistance to change; but with intentional investment and community support, these innovations can scale more quickly.

We want to spotlight some of these product innovators and trailblazers.

CutMyTimber is a fabricator of mass timber and steel components that uses software, robotics, and craftsmanship to fabricate high-quality buildings, faster and cost-effectively in a factory. CutMyTimber begins with an architect’s design model and then digitally models and fabricates individual timber components in a factory with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. This integrated “file-to-factory” process minimizes errors, raises quality and productivity, and empowers builders to build faster, better, smarter and with far less waste. “Our goal is to make Oregon more of a global leader in building at the intersection of timber and technology, with a focus on sustainability,” said Greg Howes, Partner at CutMyTimber. The company is adding capacity and more CNC machines and is building a new factory in Eagle Creek, OR, which they plan to make a center of excellence for innovation in mass timber and housing. They work with a growing network of partner companies and clients at the forefront of innovation.

MODS PDX is an off-site contractor that focuses on driving efficiency in the homebuilding process through modular manufacturing techniques. Efficiency starts at the design process, with a group of architects and engineers who focus on incorporating standardized structural details while differentiating homes with different claddings and paint colors. The home components are then manufactured in a factory, which enables precision, quality control, and energy efficiency. Because the components are built simultaneously with the site and foundation work, homes are built faster than traditional construction. Nathan Young, Founder of MODS PDX, shared that the need for standardized home products is growing in Oregon. “We need to change the way we invest in the industry to make it grow,” said Young. “Everyone is pushing for it – the state is pushing for it – and we will start to see more standardized products in the market.”

HumanKind Homes is a start-up that uses geopolymer concrete bricks made of recyclable materials to build construction kits that are manufactured offsite and shipped for onsite assembly. The geopolymer is made from regionally available, recycled materials such as fly ash, a byproduct from coal power plants, rice husk, palm oil, and even recycled tire rubber and cannabis waste. The home design is pre-manufactured in a factory and a kit of bricks is delivered to the home site in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with specialized features, to be assembled like Legos. The technology reduces the complexity of the supply chain, with the entire physical structure being built from one material. The process also reduces cost and time to build by simplifying labor needs by over 80%. While it takes an average of 24 people to build a home, HumanKind Homes can build a home with an average team of 5 in a much shorter time span. According to Eliot Kahn, CEO of HumanKind Homes, the company is gaining traction and has received grants, including one from Missing Middle Housing Fund in 2022, and investments and resources from two innovation accelerators including Techstars in Atlanta, GA, and the Oregon Startup Center in Beaverton, OR. They hope to be fully operational by late 2024 or early 2025, building a range of housing suitable for workforce housing. “We are proud of our mission to optimize a better long-term solution focused on sustainability, indoor health, affordability, and cost-effective housing for all to access,” said Kahn.

Quantum Assembly is challenging the status quo of the typical home building process utilizing pre-designed buildings combined with automated component fabrication and ultimately working towards automated assembly to significantly reduce the cost and time to build. They have developed a proprietary housing module (Lego block) that is 95% factory formed and built out of 98% recycled steel frames and light-gauge steel wall construction. The prefabricated wall panels are auto fabricated and serve as the building block for all units, eliminating the need for wood, glue, nails, drywall, and paint. Additionally, the selection of the materials and parts makes the structure non-combustible and more durable, resulting in greater longevity, lower maintenance costs, and insurance costs that are 70% lower than wood-framed buildings with drywall. “We have to get to high-speed assembly to get the price of home construction down,” said Ryan Olsen, CEO of Quantum Assembly. "What this really translates to is eliminating materials and processes that are not capable of being done quickly, like drywall and paint,” he said. Olsen explained that automation needs to start at the smallest parts and pieces of production to supply a lower cost fabrication kit vs. current market approaches, which are largely handmade with slow processes. Quantum’s designs feature a select number of roof, siding, and interior design packages, which also helps to standardize and streamline the manufacturing process. Because the design module is close to the dimensionality and of less weight of a standard shipping container, it can easily be transported and delivered to home sites. Matt Neish, Studio Leader and Senior Project Manager with Otak, a design and architecture firm that has been working with Quantum on their design, said that the difference with Quantum is the longevity of their product due to materials choices, design approach, and the minimal assembly required when the product is shipped out to the home site, which can be completed in hours. “When you can cut delivery of units from over a year to four months, that is a game changer,” Neish said. Quantum is currently planning for delivery of a 21-unit Veterans housing community in Burns, OR, with additional projects in the works. He added, “There is a sense of urgency around this. I feel hopeful for the future. We collectively made the problem (of our housing underproduction crisis), and together we have to solve it.” With innovators like these in Oregon, we can close the gap on workforce housing. These organizations all recognize Oregon’s need and are committed to producing housing faster, for less resources than it is being built today. Let’s BUILD.

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