We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Modular Apartment Buildings

Click to Enlarge: Brooklyn developers are getting in on the act
having been inspired by China
Modular construction of residential high rises will rapidly aid in the major shift of American suburban population to urban areas. It also stands to provide sufficient amount of housing units to reduce social tensions in parts of the developing world where insufficient housing is a dangerous political issue.

The obscene and ridiculous fascination (although often interesting!) with shipping containers used as houses and office spaces shows that the public psyche approves of modular housing as a concept. Current container experiments may be fine as art projects or for disaster relief (although even that can be reconceptualized from the bottom up and mass produced) but real modular construction needs to be collectively thought about.

Military style techniques for rapid construction of modular housing were used to erect modern suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s starting with Levittown. Similar thought and application of elements of the military-industrial complex alongside Chinese construction companies can rapidly build new residential urban centers  in North America during the ongoing population shift there from suburbia. And throughout the world at large for that matter.

Ideally, most of the module would be printed in factories for extra speed and uniformity rather than assembled by robotic hands like cars. Modified supercargo ships can also be outfitted with printing factories to eliminate the need to load completed modules onto ships in the first place. Finished apartment buildings should allow for rapid disassembly/removal of modules every 20 years or so (to sell off/give away older modules to poorer areas of the globe the way old cars are sold off) and to allow replacement of modules in case of damage or fire.

Basic electrical, water, and insulation elements within the modules should also be readily accessible (for maintenance and appliance/furniture related modification) and introduced into the module during the printing process. Various insulating and protective coatings of nanomaterials are to be sprayed on just as naturally as on doors in a car assembly line process.

These days it is relatively easy to plan out a number of geometric module shapes to allow construction of much larger livingrooms and bedrooms from a few specialty modules. We're not talking a 50 story apartment project constructed of completely uniform boxes. Just like LEGO, diversity will arise from arrangement of a number of mass produced module parts. Some parts will be a lot more ubiquitous than others (think the equivalent of the connecting 6 hatch main module on the International Space Station that allows joining of other parts). But please no shipping container high rises for the love of god!

Those people choosing to remain in rural areas don't need to be discounted from this process. There is no need to remain in increasingly deteriorating wooden structures. Less high tech modular housing is currently primarily used for rural and suburban homes but it can be bumped up a notch in terms of materials from current cheap wooden models. Lets not forget that price comes down with economies of scale. To quote a previous article about modular hosing for rural areas:

"Modules are built "off the grid ready" with solar panels and clean water from air systems. A buyer modifies a module before buying the way one does a Dell computer and its parts. Since the price of a laptop went from thousands of dollars to 35 dollars (India also produced the world's cheapest car as well), mass production stands to do the same for housing. Entertainment and furniture systems can be added, subtracted, or reconfigured within individual modules. When one's kitchen becomes obsolete, the whole thing can be sold like a used car and replaced while keeping the rest of the house. This housing is not made of wood. People buy mass produced cars, yachts, and computers and there is no reason to not do the same for homes. It's about time to apply space tech for hyper efficient land living."

Some may complain that humans are not bees or ants to be "pigeonholed" like this. Well, current research shows that major urban human settlements are beginning to resemble massive ant colonies, However, when we understand the process, we can direct it and interject concepts like modularity into it to give extra psychological comfort, autonomy, and options for living space diversity. Currently as the world continues breakneck pace of urbanization, we're looking at roughly 300 mega cities being rapidly filled with corporate real estate developments or government projects. Paradoxically, single housing unit modularity or modularity of bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, etc allows for visual architectural diversity through rearrangement on an apartment complex by apartment complex basis. Outside, the residential high rises may look like relatively uniform glass/21st century concrete tombs but inside there would be all the diversity desired for families of various sizes and backgrounds.

Most importantly, the inner diversity of modular arrangement within the residential complex would take relatively similar amounts of time and electrical energy to erect (and of course dramatically much less time and energy used to construct even simple boring project-esque condominiums currently).

In developing parts of the world it would even be theoretically possible (if often not practically) to transplant an entire small village or hamlet right into a residential complex within an urban area with inner modular arrangement catering to the social dynamics of the entire village. In areas like India and China where thousands of villages have to be moved due to infrastructure development needs, such moves would be aided by flexibility that modular housing allows and would preserve social relations in strange, new, and unfamiliar urban environment. Modular construction can even thus reduce social anomie if done properly.

Module housing unit construction has to be dramatically faster than rise in world's annual birthrate. This means a number of mass assembly sites by deep water ports. Former or modified military naval construction installations serve as good springboards. For example, if Scotland declares independence from United Kingdom in 2014 and kicks out the Trident submarine fleet, the empty area would be perfect for a modular set up to serve along the coast of the North Sea region.

Whenever a slum is destroyed (as was the case with Rio Favela in Rio De Janeiro recently to make room for World Cup Infrastructure), modular units should be introduced as rapidly as possible to get back the hearts and minds of the locals. More authoritarian and thus speedy governments in Beijing and Moscow will probably (unfortunately) popularize this concept first before it takes off in the West. The West can preempt (these possibly too streamlined "ant-colony" efforts in the east) with large scale modular housing drive under the cover of environmentalism, green energy, smart grid integration, innovation hub construction, etc.

Modular housing should be sold as:

1) A public health issue (reducing rodents, filth, spread of disease)

2) A public safety issue through crime reduction/prevention (via psychological quality of life increase)

3) An economic issue (connecting rural and urban population to newest efficient energy, information, and utility grids)

4) An environmental issue (scraping and recycling older, less efficient, and less insulated housing)

5) A governance issue to create better social cohesion and possibly allow better census tracking to cater to populations politically

We need to go beyond this.
We can hope that once the concept is popularized sufficiently, we'll see apartment complex designs that go way and above the dreams of Scandinavian planners for government projects in the 60s and 70s. It is not enough to create a modernist looking high rise building, paint it in cheerful colors, stuff it full of poor people, and hope for the best.

What must be kept in mind going forward is generational renewal of modules, constant adaptation, experimentation, and application of newest mass production practices for module construction that would allow for additional renewal and experimentation within modules when it comes to shifting inside space, walls, furniture, and appliances.

This looks better :)
add a sprinkle of vertical farm modules and...

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  1. So nice to live in any of this buildings. Awesome blog and keep showing us the futuristic buildings that pave the way for human survival. :)


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  4. Last month, we had a new neighbor and I was quite surprised to see a shipping container modular home just 4 houses from us. It was really beautiful and I guess it was such a nice addition to our place. I've never seen such a cozy and modern house before, it's so cool. It looked like two containers stacked on top of the other but I must say, it looked really stunning. My daughter who's getting married next year is thinking of getting a similar home for her and the fiancee. To find out more, see: