A Charleston-based company that creates modern pre-fabricated homes is offering a promising way to address housing shortages and create more affordable housing.
The company’s housing build systems have parts that essentially snap together and can be built in just days with no specialized labor required.
Construx (formerly Charleston Fab Lab) owners Rob Bertschy, chief revenue officer, and Nicholas Godfrey, CEO, say the housing kits can save up to 20% of construction labor costs compared to building homes using traditional construction.
“The savings are in labor because these houses can be put together by unskilled workers — you just need a rubber mallet to put these together. There are no tape measures, no saws. We’re taking that element out where an unskilled worker can build precise, strong, perfect houses,” Godfrey said. “Each kit has an assembly guide that’s, ‘step one, step two, step three,’ and the parts fit together so tightly that everything is perfectly straight and perfectly square.”
Construx manufactures 16 different designs that offer a variety of floor plans and up to 50 different layouts and looks, including two-story homes. The kits have models with porches and balconies and the company can work with architects to incorporate nearly any style and size.
Using 3-D cutting of the panels, the kits can be mass produced quickly and use helix foundations for virtually zero soil disturbance and the ability to be placed on lots that are difficult to build on using traditional methods.
While the company works with private homeowners, the idea is to be a cost-saving solution for contractors. A 528 square-foot, one-bedroom home with a porch starts at $125,000 and a three- bedroom, two-bath home that is between 1,200-1,800 square feet starts at $165,000.
“We want contractors to buy our framing structure so they can build more homes and have us become the ‘shell’ that they finish,” said Bertschy. “Contractors have a problem today with finding skilled labor and we’re providing a guaranteed frame where everything is the right size. We don’t want to compete with contractors; we want to be a solution for them.”
Construx has worked with non-profits, foundations and private property owners to use the housing kits to easily add a second home on a lot to provide additional rental housing stock. The company has added nineteen houses in the Charleston area, from Hollywood to Johns Island.
Many Charleston-area city laws allow Construx’s smaller units to be added to lots that are 9,000 square feet and up.
“Many municipalities, including North Charleston, have made it easy to build these backyard units with tax credits, rapid permitting and very easy guidelines to allow people to add these small backyard 528-square-foot options,” Bertschy said.
The units are partially pre-assembled at the Construx warehouse in downtown Charleston and shipped by truck in parts to the site where they are finished being assembled by most able-bodied adults, even those without prior construction experience. The kits snap together and have all hookups ready for water and sewer, central air conditioning and heat.
“A couple of friends in three or four Saturdays could get their own structure up,” Godfrey said. “Then, it’s up to a contractor to tie into the water and sewer as a second step after the structure is up.”
The ease of the kits allows for more rapid connections to utilities than a traditional house, Bertschy said.
“The kits are more intuitive for the plumber and the electrician, HVAC and mechanical contractor. What would normally take an electrician four or five days takes three quarters of a day with our system. There’s not as much drilling and it’s kind of a ‘plug in and play,’” Bertschy said.
The kits are ideal for construction and contractor partners for foundations, non-profits and governmental housing to add quality housing in less time and for less cost.
The company is licensed in 38 states and works on projects across the Southeast as well as Oregon, California, Idaho and Texas.
“We’re looking at a project now in Canada,” Godfrey said.
The housing kits have become so popular that Construx will be seeking investor funding over the next six months to scale up in order to make hundreds of pre-fabricated homes a month.
“We’re getting contracts in the hundreds now that we got through our R&D phase,” Godfrey said. “We are not able to (currently) handle that demand.”
Investor funding would allow the company to increase production capacity locally and expand to other markets. The company also is looking to secure grant funding to add affordable housing stock throughout the county.
“We don’t want to build a gigafactory that can build houses and ship them all over the country. We want a bunch of little factories distributed across the country that are a low-cost barrier to entry from an equipment standpoint. Instead of having one facility that can build 1,000 houses, we’d rather have a thousand facilities that can build 50,000 houses,” Godfrey said.
An idea is born
Godfrey, who has a background in fabrication and technology, said the idea is 16 years in the making, after an economic recession and an earthquake in Haiti. He started putting the first prefab housing kits together in 2011 in his Johns Island backyard.
He connected with Bertschy, a Johns Island neighbor, who previously owned a swing company and whose family was in construction.
“I talked to half a dozen engineers, but it really came down to meeting someone who really identified with trying to go after a lack of affordable housing,” Godfrey said.
“I was intrigued by seeing the things (Godfrey) was building out for testing and asked, ‘How can I get involved?’” Bertschy recalls. “It was at a point where all the work was ready to be put into a product. I came in and started getting sales and contracts. Nicholas is the scientist and I’m the business and sales side.”
The two started in earnest in 2014, manufacturing the houses in Charleston in a research and development phase under the name Charleston Fab Lab with the first homes in Asheville, N.C., thanks to a contract and connection. The first houses in Charleston came online in 2016 in the Park Circle area.
Affordable Housing Alternative
Anyone can purchase the Construx building system, but the focus is on affordable homes and working with contractors, Godfrey said. The company has worked with local land trusts to place homes on family-owned and heirs property land.
Construx kits are unique and modern designs that are unlike the cookie-cutter blocks of apartment homes historically seen in affordable housing communities. Construx works with architects on new and existing designs.
“We can take almost any look of any house and convert it to our building system,” Godfrey said.
There are opportunities to incorporate innovative materials in the future, like industrial hemp in lieu of wood frames and walls.
With a mission as a solution-oriented company, Godfrey said the lower-cost and lower environmental impact housing kits can make a big — and rapid — difference in addressing affordable housing around the country.
“There’s not a city out there that has enough affordable housing. Some cities are further along, where they have land allocated and bids open — a need for 400 homes in Phoenix or 200 homes in Vancouver; these projects are right up our alley and partners from those markets contact us to bid on them,” Bertschy said. “The plan is to continue to grow here and expand, but to take the model we’ve built and expand it to other markets through existing fabricators. It’s infinitely scalable because the demand for housing is never ending.”-