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This new “Rapid Response Factory” wants to make an assembly line to build post-disaster housing

Six months after a wildfire destroyed the town of Paradise, California, and killed 85 people, some of the survivors who lost their homes were still living in tents. In Florida, months after Hurricane Michael, others were staying in cars and neighbors’ backyards. FEMA is often slow to deliver emergency trailers. Some of this may be due to mismanagement—as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, FEMA was auctioning off old trailers that could have been reused—but there might also be better ways to supply post-disaster housing than trucking in trailers. A new center called the Rapid Response Factory will explore how to use the latest modular housing technology to construct emergency shelters more quickly and affordably.

The center is part of the Bay Area headquarters of FactoryOS, a housing startup that builds apartments in a factory and whose first customer was Alphabet, Google’s parent company. A new investment from the software company Autodesk is allowing the startup to expand in two ways: A new space called the Factory Floor Learning Center will focus on changing housing policy to make modular housing easier to build, led by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, a nonprofit focused on finding solutions for affordable, sustainable housing. And in another building, the startup will begin working on solving the problem of disaster housing.

“We started FactoryOS almost two years ago to the day,” says founder Rick Holliday. “And during those two years, we’ve had three of the worst fires in California history.” After each disaster, he says, he got calls asking if the company could help build shelters. The company was both too new to take on more work at the time, and has been building large, high-end apartment buildings, not small single-family homes. But the new center will look at what could be done in future disasters. “We’re going to explore if we can create a standardized unit that could be used for supportive housing, or could be stitched together to create a small-to-medium to a larger-sized building after a natural disaster quickly,” he says. Currently, the company can build four to six apartments a day; by 2020, it expects to be producing 8 to 10. With the Rapid Response Factory, it may be able to produce 12 to 16 units a day by 2021.

The company will develop a version of the assembly line that it uses to build apartment units, which currently has stations for everything from laying floors to adding appliances, so each unit is essentially complete when it reaches the building site, and can be slotted into a larger frame like a Lego block. “Job one is going to be to try to create a plan for a standardized unit and a more automated factory—sort of like building Model T’s or Volkswagens—a simple standardized unit that could be widely accessible at a really good price,” says Holliday. The company’s costs now are 30% less than traditional construction, and on track to be 50% less by the first quarter of 2020.

Autodesk, which previously worked with a disaster housing company called Better Shelter that spun out of Ikea, recognized that working in the space is challenging in part because policy isn’t always aligned with new construction technology. (In Better Shelter’s case, he says, there were challenges in terms of existing supply chain contracts for the customer, the UN Refugee Agency, though the company is operating more smoothly now.) By also working with the Terner Center on policy, FactoryOS may be able to navigate bureaucratic issues more easily. The policy research will also look at challenges for modular housing in general, helping push the industry forward as a potential solution for the housing crisis in places like California. The deal between FactoryOS and Autodesk calls for tracking the social impact metrics of the new construction process, from reducing the cost of housing to reducing the carbon footprint of buildings.

For disaster shelters, the work could be critical as disasters continue to become more common because of climate change. “I think there’s absolutely a lot of space to innovate in the disaster shelter arena,” says Joe Speicher, executive director at Autodesk Foundation. “There’s not enough innovation in this space. There’s a lot of one-off, interesting proof of concepts that occur. But really nothing that’s systematic.”

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