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Answering the call for affordable housing

Through two public-private partnerships, faculty and students in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction are pioneering high-tech, data-driven methods to make quality housing more affordable.

Philip Agee, Andrew McCoy, and Kereshmeh Afsari (left to right) are leading a project that aims to design and produce a 3D-printed single-family concrete home in the greater Richmond metropolitan area. The pilot project will explore the cost savings and efficiencies of using concrete 3D-printing technology to build affordable homes in Virginia and beyond. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

Home ownership has long been a hallmark of the American Dream. But the rising costs of homes, land, and materials—coupled with stagnating incomes, a growing population, increased housing demand, skilled construction labor shortages, a straining rental market, and a global pandemic—have pushed the dream of home ownership even farther out of reach for many Americans.

Through two vanguard public-private partnerships, Virginia Tech faculty and students in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction (MLSOC) are pursuing low-cost, high-tech, and data-driven approaches to making home ownership more attainable.

The Virginia Center for Housing Research (VCHR) is an interdisciplinary research center within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies—and the official housing research and information center for the Commonwealth of Virginia. For almost 20 years, the center has provided research and technical expertise to state and national policy makers, communities, and businesses on a variety of housing-related issues. Over the years, the center has partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as state and local governments to advance affordable, innovative, sustainable housing.

This year, VCHR is helping pilot two initiatives to determine whether 3D-printed concrete homes and manufactured factory-built housing are viable answers to the housing affordability crisis in Virginia and across the nation.

Both projects are funded in part through grants from Virginia Housing (formerly Virginia Housing and Development Authority) and its Community Impact Innovative Demonstrations 2020 grant program, and through investments by corporate and nonprofit partners.

The first project, Printing for Affordable Concrete Housing and Training (PACT), aims to design and produce a 3D-printed single-family concrete home in the greater Richmond metropolitan area. The pilot project will explore the cost savings and efficiencies of using concrete 3D-printing technology to build affordable homes in Virginia and beyond. Researchers will print the 1,400-square-foot home on site using a massive, modular 3D-printer called COBOD2, a technology pioneered by the Danish that readily adapts to any location and design.

The project’s principal investigator, Andrew McCoy, director of VCHR, Beliveau Professor in the Department of Building Construction, and MLSOC associate director, says the study will be the first 3D concrete build in Virginia and the first in the  nation to explore the potential of 3D-printed concrete homes for superior cost-efficiency, build time, and durability versus traditional stick-built homes in affordable housing.

“We hope this project is the first of many for the center that allow us to seed innovation in the housing industry by bringing together funding and stakeholders that produce a real project and study it for success,” said McCoy, “Private industry alone can’t afford to try and adopt these innovations. This grant allows us to play together in a space of innovation to see if industry can take this forward. While previous VCHR work in innovation was mostly theoretical, this project applies our knowledge in the construction of an affordable 3D-printed house that can be utilized across the Commonwealth to help people in need.”

The Virginia Tech team includes co-principal investigator Philip Agee, an assistant professor cross-appointed in the Department of Building Construction and VCHR, who will study simulated and measured building performance outcomes such as energy use and indoor environmental quality, as well as the human factors resulting from automating common construction tasks.

Co-investigator Kereshmeh Afsari, assistant professor and manager of the ARCADE Lab, will help develop models to automate the construction process and work with industry partners and students in the design, construction, and analysis of the home.

“This project adds cutting-edge technologies to the conventional construction process to automate construction tasks,” Afsari said. “It’s exciting to integrate curriculum and theory, and then apply it to provide housing for those in need. These projects seed opportunities for the industry to move forward and educate the next generation who will utilize the technology.”

Philip Agee, Andrew McCoy, and Kereshmeh Afsari (left to right) pictured outside of Bishop-Favrao Hall on the Virginia Tech campus. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech students in MLSOC and the Vecellio Construction Engineering and Management program will participate as part of the research team in the designing, printing, and evaluation of the home. They will also help determine appropriate future markets and applications for 3D-printing. Virginia students in grades K-12 will be invited to watch as the home is printed – and learn about the emerging field of 3D technology in housing construction.

In addition to Virginia Housing, partners include Alchemy Community Transformations, the Better Housing Coalition, and Century Concrete Inc. The project also brings in industry stakeholders whose role is guidance, dissemination, networking, and crafting education, including the Virginia Department of Transportation and Hourigan Construction, in the hopes of scaling the technology beyond housing and the current technology.

Virginia Tech alumna and Century Concrete Project and Business Development Manager Mason White Carrington (M.S. Building Construction 2007) is partnering with her alma mater to bring the project to fruition. At Century Concrete’s Richmond facility, the research team will test and prototype the printing technology for various scales of construction—including homes, high rises, roadways, and sound walls.

“We are excited to have Mason and Century on board, as they are alumni, supporters of our program, and leaders in the industry,” McCoy said.

In a parallel development, Agee is principal investigator on a project called “Innovations in Manufactured Housing,” which will study new factory-built modular homes as higher-quality, affordable alternatives to older mobile and stick-built homes. Along with co-investigators McCoy and Assistant Professor Xinghua Gao, the project involves an array of public and private partners, including project:HOMES, Virginia Homes of Boydton, Fleetwood Homes, Chesterfield County, and the Robins Foundation.

Virginia Tech students will get hands-on experience using Building Information Modeling (BIM) to design and develop 3D models and digital twins of the homes. They will use BIM to evaluate and compare the production process, energy efficiency, and operational performance of both site-built and off-site manufactured homes. Agee and the team will also deploy energy monitoring and indoor environmental quality sensors in the homes to measure and compare performance outcomes in manufactured housing and with stick-built housing.

“Manufactured housing represents the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the U.S., so increasing the supply of quality manufactured housing will help us more quickly address affordability and home ownership challenges in our state and nation than other housing supply approaches,” Agee said. “This study aims to demonstrate that the manufactured housing of today is a high-quality, affordable housing option.”

Work on both projects is already underway, with the 3D-printed home slated for completion in Summer 2021 and the first manufactured housing units completed in late 2021.

Both projects deliver on the three pillars of Virginia Tech’s land grant mission of education, service, and outreach.

“We hope to bring the technology to Appalachia next and across the Commonwealth to markets that could benefit. In doing that, we will build a curriculum around the printing process for students at Virginia Tech,” McCoy said. “This is an unmatched opportunity to advance affordable housing in partnership with our state and industry, while also bringing along students as active participants in the process. It’s the ultimate form of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).”

– Written by Marya Barlow