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Modular Prototype: IKEA Meets iPod

A Seattle developer plans to bring high-concept, Euro-styled affordable housing direct from the factory to close-in neighborhoods.

January 01, 2008 |
The inhabit stacked modules were put in place in three hours. Unico

Properties hopes to build several hundred units in Seattle neighborhoods—Capitol Hill, First Hill, The Denney Regrade, Fremont, Ballard, and Wallingford—as well as in Portland, Ore.

nico Properties LLC, a Seattle-based real estate firm, owns and operates seven million sf of property in the western U.S., mostly office buildings. Three years ago, however, Unico branched out a bit and converted a 1910-vintage office building at Fourth and University in downtown Seattle into 95 apartments. While the going rental rate in downtown was running $2.25-2.40/sf, Unico was able to obtain rentals of up to $3.40/sf.

That experience was an eye-opener for Unico CEO Dale Sperling. “You could just see the wave of urban living coming to downtown,” he says. With only a 3% vacancy rate, Seattle devotes about two-thirds of its apartment stock to singles, living alone or with roommates, many of them young people who came to the Queen City to work for iconic Seattle companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks.

But Seattle is bipolar in its housing: high-priced condos at one end and some low-priced subsidized housing at the other, but not much in the middle. So finding a reasonably priced apartment near work was not easy for these aspiring urban professionals.


Apartments feature built-in storage and ventless washer/dryer combinations. Ceiling height is 10 feet floor to floor. “We’re looking at very small

spaces, and the success lies in the livability,” says Mithun’s Tammie Schacher. Interior design by Vision Art, Seattle.
Inhabit modules being stacked. PHOTO: MITHUN, JUAN HERNANDEZ

Sperling saw the close-in housing shortage as a threat to Unico's core business. “We own a lot of property in downtown, and we have a self-interest in making sure that people who work in them can afford to live near them,” he told BD+C. “Eighty-five percent of the people in these buildings are not in corner offices.”

Success in the apartment market would not come easily for Unico. “You can't compete on land costs or what you can charge in rents,” says Sperling. “The only place you can really drive the equation is to drive construction costs down.” In 2005, he launched a bold experiment to try to do just that.

Sperling decided to test if a factory-based system could provide a high-tech, high-design, economical solution to Seattle's affordable housing quandary. His vision: a kind of Euro-style IKEA design married to an edgy iPod functionality that would overcome the “trailer” stigma attached to factory-built housing.

He put local architect Mithun, well known for its green building expertise, to the task; Mithun brought in HyBrid Architecture, a local boutique with a reputation for doing clever things with used cargo containers, which it called “cargotecture.”

The two firms spent several months investigating various options, when, in a fortuitous turn of events, they learned that a prefab housing factory with state-of-the-art CAD-based German robotics and laser-cutting technology was being set up just 65 miles north of Seattle, in Burlington, Wash.

Even though the manufacturer, known as Transform LLC, would not be in operation for a while, Unico went ahead with a feasibility study comparing wood-prefab modules based on Transform's manufacturing platform to modules based on HyBrid's cargotecture, as well as to conventional stick-built construction.

The feasibility study concluded last February, and the results proved revelatory. First, it was clear that it would be impractical for Unico to use a system based on HyBrid's cargotecture, which would have required building a factory. It was also determined that the cost range between the three systems was a mere $1,000 per module.

But the key finding had to do with what Mithun's principal on the job, Tammie Schacher, AIA, LEED AP, calls “time velocity.” Simply put, building the modules in a factory would save 3-6 months' time over stick-built construction. Moreover, as HyBrid co-founder Joel Egan noted, “The quality is better, as is your ability to control costs.”

Two weeks after the feasibility results were in, Unico gave the green light for Mithun and HyBrid to complete the design for two prototypes, a 15 x 45-foot module and a 15 x 32-foot one. Transform constructed the units in less than three weeks. Seattle had a building inspector at the factory during the process; as a result, it took less than a week for the city to grant a permit.

Last September, the two modules were trucked in from Burlington, lifted to the roof of the Unico-owned Rainier Square building, and installed within three hours, with the smaller unit (480 sf) stacked on top of the larger (675 sf). Additional site work—exterior siding, a prefab walkway system, and interior finish work—took about three weeks. On October 15, after nearly two years of R&D, the modular apartments, labeled “inhabit” by Unico, opened to a curious public, 1,200 of whom toured the installation.

Green features include energy-efficient windows, superinsulation, occupancy sensors to control lighting and heating, dual-flush toilets, high-efficiency heat pumps, and lightweight decking made of recycled plastic and cellulose. The upper unit has a three-season vegetated green deck, which reduces stormwater runoff.

The greenest aspect of all is the factory production itself, which minimizes on-site waste and pollution and cuts down on noise and dust pollution during installation. “Ninety percent of those who filled out our survey said the green aspect was very important to them,” says Sperling, who says future “inhabit” developments will seek LEED certification.

Unico has issued an RFP to Transform and two other manufacturers, Champion (Troy, Mich.) and Guerdon Enterprises (Boise, Idaho). Sperling wants to build several hundred units this year in neighborhoods on the edge of downtown Seattle, where the land is cheaper—as well as in Portland, Ore. “I think this deal has legs,” he says. “The response from prospective tenants and city officials gives us a critical lead. The factor that correlates most directly with job creation is affordable housing.”

— Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief

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