Jason Van Nest of Logic Building Systems of Brattleboro says his coupling will allow his manufactured pods to easily plug into the host building.
Ellen Pratt/The Commons
Jason Van Nest of Logic Building Systems of Brattleboro says his coupling will allow his manufactured pods to easily plug into the host building.

Construction innovator looks to take on housing crisis

Brattleboro firm creates modular rooms and works to develop open standards for their installation, hoping to weaken one barrier to affordable housing: construction cost

BRATTLEBORO-Talk to anybody about Vermont's housing crisis, and the subject of high construction costs will inevitably come up.

It currently costs about $500,000 to build a modest apartment or small home in the state, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA). That's up from about $370,000 in 2022.

High interest rates, supply shortages, and a lack of labor all contribute to these high costs. The result is a widening gap between what's needed (VHFA estimates 40,000 more homes will be needed by 2030) and what's being built (the number of building permits issued each year has stagnated at about 2,300 homes).

Jason Van Nest is the co-founder and CEO of Logic Building Systems on Main Street, an off-site manufacturer of kitchen, bathroom, and utility room modules. He said he is "laser-focused" on driving down the costs of housing construction.

His solution? Manufacture kitchens, bathrooms, and utility rooms off site, then "plug [them] into" host buildings using standardized connections.

Van Nest said Logic's modular room units "will be picked up with a forklift, put on a truck, lifted up to the floor of the building, dropped in place, and plugged in. Just like installing an appliance."

"The time between when it arrives on the job site and the time when you flush the toilet can be as little as 15 minutes," he said.

Van Nest trained as an architect and spent his college summers building homes with Habitat for Humanity. In addition to being an entrepreneur, Van Nest also runs the Center for Offsite Housing at the New York Institute of Technology, where he and his team are developing the first standards for how modular kitchen, bathrooms, and utility rooms would plug into a host building.

Van Nest said that modular construction, which has been around since the mid-20th century, is hindered by a lack of technical standards for integrating modules into buildings.

"Not everybody agrees how to connect manufactured pods to the utilities in the basement of a building," Van Nest said. "The modular industry can't work at scale because currently you have to design how the product will fit into every single building."

That's where his standards come in.

A visit to Van Nest's lab on Main Street clarifies what he is describing. At about 7 feet tall and 8 inches wide, the "coupling," as Van Nest calls it, has ports for electricity, HVAC, plumbing, sanitary, and data that the manufactured kitchen plugs into.

Van Nest equates his innovation to the invention of the USB port.

"Before the standard USB port came about, there were multiple ways that printers, keyboards, and other peripherals connected to the back of the computer," he said.

"Then Hewlett-Packard and other big corporations got together and made the open-source standard USB. Nobody owned it. Everybody could make a USB plug that plugged into somebody else's USB. And then the computer peripherals marketplace exploded," he continued.

As with the USB standard, Van Nest's connectivity standard will be open source, which means that companies can freely use the technical specifications without paying licensing fees to an owner.

Once finalized, the standard will be handed off to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private nonprofit organization that collaborates with industry and government to identify and develop standards and conformance-based solutions to national and global priorities.

"ANSI tells us how big an inch is," said Van Nest. "And because of that, I can go into any hardware store in America and buy a tape measure, and it'll agree with everybody else's tape measure. So that we can concentrate on building buildings - not calibrating our tape measures."

Van Nest believes his standard will help to create a thriving marketplace for modulars. He also said that although he's an entrepreneur, he's not in this business to get rich.

"I'm a professor! I've got patches on my tweed jacket," he exclaimed.

"If Logic Building Systems ends up getting whupped in the marketplace because other capitalists can make factories faster and manufacture modules to the standard, I'll be tickled," he said. "I'll be absolutely poor, but smiling. We'll have established a basic technology to help address the affordable housing crisis."

Van Nest described the region's housing crisis as consisting of four separate crises on the supply side: inefficiencies, waste, high material costs, and labor shortages.

He believes off-site manufacture of modular kitchens, bathrooms, and utility rooms, along with standards for installing them, will directly attack these crises.

"We haven't updated the way we build homes in 100 years," Van Nest said. "And these current onsite construction methods are inefficient and profoundly wasteful."

According to Van Nest, about 32% of construction materials that are purchased "end up in the dumpster before the occupant moves into the building."

Through off-site manufacturing, where the same product is built repeatedly, the manufacturer can find ways to eliminate waste and save materials and labor, Van Nest said.

He said that soaring material costs, combined with inefficient construction systems, compound the problem of high costs.

He also noted that there is a severe labor shortage in the construction industry because skilled tradespeople are retiring and fewer students are replacing them.

"We tend to send a lot of our students for bachelor degrees. We don't have a healthy trade training path," he said.

Van Nest believes that Brattleboro needs these skilled laborers to refresh the area's aging housing stock. He wants to train the next generation of local tradespeople through a project that he hopes will be funded with a $9.9 million congressional discretionary spending request to Sens. Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Becca Balint.

The project will test and document the system of training the work force, manufacturing Logic Building System's modules, and installing them using the new standards.

The plan is to build and install 200 modules in 50 new homes from four affordable housing developers in Vermont.

These include Groundworks Collaborative, which will be constructing a new shelter at 81 Royal Rd. in Brattleboro; Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, which builds affordable housing in Windham and Windsor counties; Community Development Support, Inc., a Brattleboro nonprofit; and Downstreet Housing and Community Development, an affordable housing developer in central Vermont.

"We're very interested in the work of Logic Building Systems, as it holds the promise of lower construction costs and directly deals with the most significant barrier to building more homes in Vermont," said Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

"We welcome this entrepreneurial approach and look forward to collaborating with them in the future," she said.

Van Nest envisions a future in which consumers can build the home of their dreams using off-site manufactured modules.

His goal is to design software that would allow consumers to design their home choosing from a catalogue of parts: the foundation, the structural elements, the outside shell of the home, the rooms, and even the chimney.

Consumers would be able to drag and drop the various parts into an online design, then Logic - or other module manufacturers - would build and deliver the parts.

"This is the way we should be building homes in the 21st century," he said.

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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