An inside look at the Black Street Development
Pittsburgh was once the steel capital of the world, with a population double what it is today. When the industry left town in the 1980s, so did the people, leaving thousands of vacant homes, many of which were torn down.
The city now has over 27,000 vacant lots, and a startup called Module aims to fill them with sustainably built new homes. Module co-founder and CEO Brian Gaudio calls the lots “missing teeth,” and the company aims to replace three of them as part of the Black Street Development, a four-unit, mixed-income project of three modular residential homes.
Seventy-five miles northeast of the city, the homes are being built in Structural Modulars’ factory on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, just down the road from the ashes of the oil, lumber, and iron industries that once flourished in Clarion. Once completed, they’ll be trucked to lots in the city’s Garfield neighborhood, Module’s second build, following the debut of Latham House in May 2019.
Module aims to capitalize on changing trends in U.S. homeownership. While it’s often said that millennials are not buying houses, the narrative is beginning to change. Millennials are, in fact, buying homes, they’re just buying them later, skipping the starter home altogether.
While the average U.S. household consists of approximately two people, most new homes are built for the nuclear family: two parents and multiple children.
“There aren’t really any one-bedroom homes being built that I know of. Just one-bedroom condos,” said Michele Leone, a Pittsburgh-based real estate agent with Piatt Sotheby’s International Realty. “The homes that are being built are usually at least three to four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, and two-car garage.”
With a shift in people choosing to start families at a later age, many choose to rent until they need more space. But what if your house could grow with you?
During a traveling fellowship through South America, Gaudio discovered a 1960s mass housing experiment in Peru called PREVI. In 1966, the Peruvian government and the United Nations invited British architect Peter Land to develop an alternative housing strategy to mitigate the vast spread of informal settlements popping up across Lima at the time. The solution became incremental housing: small, sustainable homes that could be easily expanded as demand and resources grew. That sparked Gaudio’s idea for Module.
The concept for modular and prefab construction has been around for thousands of years, but it doesn’t have a sterling reputation in the U.S. “There’s a stigma around [modular construction]. Not all factories are created equal. Often when people think modular, they immediately think cheaper, the idea of pumping the same thing out, and that’s not why we’re in it,” Module co-founder and CPO Drew Brisley said. “Many architects are starting to understand that this can be a better way to build.”
Building off-site makes sense in a city like Pittsburgh. “We really like off-site construction because it’s faster, provides better quality control, better precision, and,” Gaudio said as he motioned toward a factory window, “it’s 10 degrees outside right now.”
A living unit, or box, is 80 percent complete, already equipped with bathrooms and a staircase, when it’s loaded onto a flatbed truck. The first floor of Black Street Development’s affordable housing unit took less than three weeks to be ready to ship.
It takes approximately seven months to build the average U.S. home, primarily because each piece of the process has to be completed one after the other. With modular and prefab construction, everything can be done in parallel, within a climate-controlled environment. The foundation can be laid while the house is simultaneously being built and transported.
Cutting construction time to as little as one month reduces the financial burden for the homeowner by saving on-site costs. Reducing the on-site time is an integral part of Module’s practice, though each vacant lot can present site-specific obstacles.
“Pittsburgh is a topographically challenging place, and while these old lots are vacant, they can present unforeseen challenges,” Brisley said. “We dug up an eight-stair stairwell that was completely hidden on this site. So we had to dig it up and jackhammer that thing. What does that do? That adds cost.”
The cost of a Module home varies. Its Nook model, with one bedroom and one bathroom, starts at $149,000, while the duplex model can reach just shy of $450,000, and estimates do not include the cost of a foundation, site work, local fees for permits, or meter fees. Module has, however, pushed forward with efforts to create affordable housing options with funding from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which will make specific Module homes more accessible. The URA’s Housing Development Fund runs a for-sale housing program that aids in bridging the difference between the total development cost of a house and an affordable sale price for income-qualified homebuyers.
The Black Street Development includes a duplex, which will serve as Module’s show home; a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom market-rate home with a built-in garage; and an affordable home designated for an income-qualified homebuyer. Chief design officer Hallie Dumont designed the homes to ensure there would be no differentiation between the affordable and market-rate homes. Creating inclusive and equitable mixed-income solutions within communities is vital as neighborhoods grow and develop.
“As the funding for large affordable developments is scarce and extremely competitive, including affordable units in smaller-scale projects like the one on Black Street becomes increasingly important,” Lena Andrews, director of real estate development at ACTION-Housing, said about the importance of inclusivity in new developments. “It also integrates affordable housing throughout a neighborhood instead of having all affordable units in one building.”
Modular and prefab construction has an opportunity to make an impact on Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods if they can keep building costs low. With many residents priced out of neighborhoods, younger generations looking to grow families in the city, and vacant lots remaining vacant, Module has presented a solution that may very well be able to tackle some of the problems of this capricious ecosystem.
Much like the 1960s Peruvian housing experiment, incremental housing will remain a focal point of Module’s operation. Currently, the company has patents pending on a removable roof and wall system that allows for an easier addition process, and reuse of the original roof, which will be tested during the construction on Black Street.
To date, the company has reported $1.2 million in seed funding and has plans to continue filling Pittsburgh’s proverbial missing teeth. For now, Module is focusing on individual properties and the Black Street Development, which will begin on-site construction in mid- to late March, and is set to be completed in June 2020.
“You don’t need to buy a bigger house. Buy the amount of house you need today, and add as your needs change,” Gaudio said.