Modular construction, home-sharing platforms and rental tools could be the answer to housing challenges in the US, believes Nate Loewentheil of venture capital firm Camber Creek.

At a time when macroeconomic and political forces are aggravating the challenges of affordable housing in the US, a new set of technologies, including modular construction, digitally enabled home-sharing and new financial tools for renters, are helping reduce housing costs and expand housing access.

There are a number of reasons why city policy-makers should encourage these new companies by inviting them to pilot new technologies, using city contracting power and reducing regulatory burdens.

 

Worsening problem

According to Harvard’s Joint Centre for Housing Studies, approximately one-third of US households are cost-burdened by housing, and more than a quarter of US renters spend more than half their income on housing. Current trend lines suggest the problem is getting worse.

According to an analysis of home prices by the National Association of Realtors, every single major metropolitan area grew less affordable between 2017 and 2018 (the latest year for which the housing affordability index is available).

Depending on your perspective, you can ascribe the challenges in the housing market to general economic conditions, to local regulations, or to federal policy. The market for new housing is shaped in large part by the costs of construction, especially wages. During a booming economy, construction wages increase sharply.

 According to the Federal Reserve of St Louis, hourly construction wages have risen more than 20 per cent since 2012, from $25.50 to $30.75. At a broader level, wages for millions of working Americans are simply too low to meet the prevailing costs of safe, adequate housing.

Starting during the New Deal, the Federal government stepped in to fill this gap and subsidise housing for lower-income Americans. For the past few decades, however, federal policies have generally shifted against low-income renters, aggravating the affordability crisis.

Just in the past few years, according to the Urban Institute, the share of low-income renters with housing needs receiving federal assistance dropped from 24 per cent in 2005 to 21 per cent in 2015.

 

Local regulations can severely aggravate (or ameliorate) the challenge. For example, San Francisco has some of the most restrictive zoning policies in the country, which has led to a crisis of affordability. To afford to buy the median home in San Francisco, a family has to be making $198,000 per year.

 

 

Lessons from history

Across time and geographies, technology has served as a counter-weight, consistently driving down housing costs, improving quality and expanding access.

As historian Kenneth Jackson explains in the book Crabgrass Frontier, balloon framing, a new construction method developed in the 1830s, allowed amateur carpenters to use standard schematic models, standard wood products and mass-manufactured nails to quickly build long-lasting, stable homes, dramatically reducing housing construction costs during the middle decades of the 19th century.

After World War Two, builders like Levitt & Sons applied new industrial techniques of mass manufacturing to home production, with each worker taking responsibility for a single task and working across multiple building sites, like an assembly line in reverse, again driving down costs.

Other technological innovations – like steel and reinforced concrete – made it possible to build larger and taller apartment buildings, bringing down per-unit costs.

Today, new technologies promise similar benefits for homeowners and renters, especially modular construction and home-sharing platforms. New financial tools are also helping more individuals access quality rental homes and build financial stability.

As the New York Times recently reported, in high-end markets, building a unit of low-income housing can cost as much $500,000. One alternative is modular housing, where standardised panels, rooms or apartments are built offsite. Modular housing can reduce the costs of quality control and inspection, avoid weather-related slowdowns and provide certainty for developers concerned about the timing of project completion.

 

Chicago-based construction company Skender, for example, is deploying modular homes for developers around the Windy City. They are one example among literally dozens, including Blokable, Factory OS, Boxabl and Indwelligent.

City and county governments can encourage modular construction by ensuring that building codes allow for modular buildings and by providing expedited permitting.

 

Relevance of the sharing economy

 

New construction is one part of the puzzle but there is a vast untapped resource: spare rooms in existing homes. Homeowners have been letting rooms for rent since there were homes but historically the transaction costs to rent out a room were high: advertising, screening and collecting rent.

The rise of the sharing economy has reduced those costs. Companies like PadSplit and Nesterly are helping homeowners split up their homes into multiple units or rent out spare bedrooms – of which there are at least 50 million in the US. In the process, they are creating new low-cost rental inventory, often of higher quality and in better locations than the alternatives. Cities can encourage room and home-sharing by updating regulations around rental properties and through tax policies.

For low-income renters, the biggest challenge may be accessing housing in the first place – and keeping a home once it is rented. A new set of companies are helping low-income families navigate the rental landscape at every step of the journey. OneApp provides renters with a list of apartments that will accept their credit and criminal background status, helping avoid costly application fees.

RentLogic gives renters new tools to evaluate buildings before they rent, avoiding absentee or derelict landlords. Jetty offers landlords a surety bond that allows potential renters to pay a one-time fee instead of a security deposit, helping lower-income families access a broader range of apartments.

The fee is usually around 20 per cent of the security deposit. Till, a company founded in 2018, provides short-term loans to renters to meet rent and avoid eviction on terms far cheaper than traditional payday loans.

Together these companies and others are offering a new rental roadmap that can meaningfully improve the lives of low-income Americans.

Modular construction, home-sharing platforms and rental tools are only three examples of the technologies that are helping to lower costs, improve quality and expand access to housing in the US.

Even as labour markets continue to tighten and federal support for low-income housing grows scarcer, cities and towns around the US can encourage these new companies and others like them to start making housing more affordable today.

 

Source: Smart Cities World

 

Construction on a low-cost vertical spaceport in the north of Scotland may commence within a year, pending the approval of a planning application by a local authority.

The spaceport, to be called the Space Hub Sutherland, would be built at A’Mhoine on the Moine Peninsula in the county of Sutherland, a few miles from Scotland’s Atlantic coast. This facility would enable vertical rockets to launch small satellites into low Earth polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

In early August, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a local Scottish government economic and community development agency, signed a 75-year option to lease the land where the spaceport would be built.

 

 

The development, which would cost $20.7 million, received $3 million of funding from the U.K. Space Agency in July of 2018.

“We hope to get planning consent in early 2020 and start construction soon after that,” Roy Kirk, Space Hub Sutherland project director at HIE, told Space.com. “If all goes well, we will see launches from Sutherland by the early 2020s.”

Earlier this year, HIE awarded a contract to architecture firm NORR Consultants to design facilities at the spaceport, including a launch-control center and the assembly and integration building.

“We believe that the vertical launch opportunity that we are developing will deliver a really cost-effective and low-cost access to space,” said Kirk. “Each launch will have a very tight price point, and we hope to achieve very short lead times for these launches.”

Orbex

Lockheed Martin and the British aerospace company Orbex previously committed to launching from the Sutherland spaceport, hoping to carry out up to 10 launches per year.

Earlier this year, Orbex unveiled the second stage of the company’s innovative Prime rocket, which uses a biopropane fuel and emits 90% less carbon dioxide than conventional, hydrocarbon-fueled rockets. Biopropane is an alternative to natural gas that’s produced from waste or sustainably sourced materials like algae.

The company’s CEO, Chris Larmour, welcomed the recent lease option as an important step toward taking Britain “back to space,” he said in a press statement in an email.

Orbex aims to operate the A’Mhoine site in a “‘green’ manner and will be using a site-compatible small launch vehicle with an ultra-low-carbon biopropane fuel,” Larmour added. The environmental impact of the operations is currently being scrutinized, as the proposed site lies inside a recognized area of natural and scientific interest.

UK rockets

Previously, the United Kingdom developed a functioning rocket, the Black Arrow, which launched from Australia and flew only four times before being abandoned in 1971 due to the high cost of the program.

It is not clear yet what vehicle Lockheed Martin is looking to launch from the Scottish spaceport, but the company received $31 million from the U.K. Space Agency last year to develop and operate a vertical launch system from the Sutherland Space Hub. Orbex received $7 million toward its efforts.

Orbex announced a series of launch contracts for the company’s Prime rocket, including recent agreements with the Netherlands-based cubesat launch broker Innovative Space Logistics and the U.K.-based company In-Space Missions, which plans to launch its Faraday-2b demonstration satellite from Scotland in 2022.

The Space Hub Sutherland, however, is not the only anticipated spaceport in the U.K. In May, the U.K. Space Agency announced 2 million pounds sterling ($2.44 million) of funding for the development of horizontal spaceports, from which aircraft carrying small rockets, such as the Virgin Galactic LauncherOne, could take off like regular aircraft.

There are currently four sites in the U.K. — including Newquay in Cornwall, Campbeltown and Glasgow Prestwick in Scotland, and Snowdonia in Wales — looking to develop horizontal spaceports. The U.K. government hopes that these sites will not only enable small satellite launches, but also allow space tourists to take off from British soil in the future.

 

RELATED

Cick the image to view the video of the Virgin Galatic Space Launch centre in New Mexico, designed by the UK Architects Foster and Partners

 

Source Space.com

 

Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, Ireland by Grafton Architects, winners of the 2020 RIBA gold medal. Photograph: ©Ros Kavanagh

The Dublin cooperative, known for brutalist buildings that create generous open spaces, is only the second women-led practice to win the prize.

 

Grafton Architects, the Dublin practice led by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, has been named as the recipient of the 2020 RIBA gold medal, the UK’s highest honour for architecture. It marks just the second time in the award’s 172-year history that the prize has been given to a women-led firm, following Zaha Hadid’s win in 2016.

It says a lot about the duo that their practice is named not after themselves, but the street in which they set up their office. For Grafton, place is more important than personality, and making good buildings a higher priority than theory, rhetoric or appearing in magazines.

 

Architecture biennale 2018: all hail the new queens of Venice

If Farrell and McNamara don’t fit the usual celebrity architect mould, their buildings also feel of another era. They are interested in weight, mass, and the play of light on hefty volumes of concrete and stone. They sculpt spaces from great mineral slabs and soaring buttresses, carving out volumes in a manner reminiscent of heroic brutalist buildings of the postwar era. Their structures sometimes have an archaic, primitive quality, providing robust armatures for any number of different uses that might occur within their walls over the coming centuries that they look designed to endure. In a world of lightweight frames and clip-on cladding systems, this is solid architecture that is built to last.

 

Grafton’s medal win follows the award of the inaugural RIBA international prize in 2016 for the “best new building in the world”, which went to their jaw-dropping building for the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) in Lima, Peru. Standing above a motorway like a chunk of a stadium, the muscular concrete structure provides laboratories and classrooms in a vertiginous stack of terraces, connected by open walkways and meandering social spaces, feeling like a true extension of the city, cleft from the hillside.

 

“We like to create spaces you couldn’t design consciously, things that just happen somehow,” McNamara told me at the time. “Rather than thinking of a space and then finding a structure for it, we make a structure and that, in turn, makes a space.” They say they are interested in “the spaces in between, which haven’t been asked for in the brief” and describe their architecture as a kind of “scaffolding”, a non-prescriptive framework on which lives and events can be played out.

 

 

Selected to curate the Venice Biennale in 2018, they set the theme as “Freespace”, which they described as “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda”. They spoke of the “free and additional spatial gifts” that architecture can offer – a core idea of their own buildings, which often feature generous, open, free-form spaces to be occupied as people see fit. Steps, benches, terraces and broad landings loom large. Current projects in the works for universities, including the London School of Economics, Kingston University and Toulouse, are all conceived as open, inviting forums.

 

Source: The Guardian

Digital twins and AI help to bridge the construction productivity gap  

Bam Nuttall, Cranfield University and Iotic create The Learning Camera

 

In a drive to increase on-site productivity and operational performance in the construction industry, BAM Nuttall has teamed up with tech-firm Iotic and researchers at Cranfield University to develop an AI-based, computer-vision system using new digital twin technology.

The Learning Camera project employs a standard webcam, integrated with an IoT framework of smart sensors to collect real-time environmental data such as wind speed and weather conditions, combined with contextual information including location, date and time. All this data is fed into a cloud-based system to create digital twins, which bridge the physical and virtual world.

An Iotic digital twin is an autonomous and interoperable version of a ‘thing’ or an asset with all its data and controls that can interact, interrelate and behave in a digital environment as its twinned counterpart in the real world. Pairing these two worlds with the Learning Camera enables the monitoring and analysis of on-site data to identify and head off problems before they cause potential delays, accidents and increased costs, while also helping with future planning by being able to run accurate simulations with real data.

In particular, cameras can be programmed to recognise abnormal activity on a construction site 24 hours a day and generate alerts so that someone can attend to rectify any problems. This reduces the need for repetitive on-site checks and security monitoring in hazardous areas and all-weather conditions.

Sophie Peachey, Head of Customer Success at Iotic, said: “The application of Digital Twin technology within the Learning Camera allows us to broker access to a potentially increasing number of data sources and controls to perfect the accuracy of the algorithms used in the solution. These algorithms must be able to interpret differences correctly and instigate appropriate actions to make the Learning Camera a solution that people trust. You can see how this could apply to different situations in which people have to balance the importance of knowing that something is there, has changed, or is working, against the cost of their time in checking. While this is not restricted to construction, we are very excited by the impact this could have on productivity and in providing construction staff with a safe working environment.”

Dr Yifan Zhao, lecturer in Image and Signal Processing and Degradation Assessment at the Through Life Engineering Service Institute at Cranfield University, said he believed the innovation was a great opportunity for AI to be applied to a traditional industry. “By using The Learning Camera, construction sites will be better equipped to manage and deliver projects. Its use will also promote the need for the industry to attract talent with skills in software and hardware development in order to tackle the much-publicised poor productivity levels.”

And Colin Evison, head of innovation at BAM Nuttall, concluded: “Overall, lessons are learned and opportunities are uncovered within the virtual environment that can be applied to the physical world and used to transform a business. This is a real opportunity to explore how we can make construction projects smarter by the adoption and development of technology solutions which have not been traditionally available before.”

GREEN energy has come a long way since John Blyth installed the world’s first electricity-generating wind turbine to charge a battery at his holiday home in Scotland.

That was July 1887, and it was not until 1951 that the first utility grid-connected wind turbine to operate in the UK would be built in the Orkney Islands.

Two decades later and industrial scale wind generation was proposed, but progress has not been fast.

It was another 20 years before the first commercial windfarm opened in Cornwall.

Over the last 25 years public opinion has been mixed, especially for onshore wind farms, where residents at planning committees for contentious developments have claimed they will be a “blot on the landscape”, as well as citing concerns over efficiency, the effect they have on animals, the noise they emit and potential health risks.

Most fears appear to have been quelled, but to avoid “nimbyism”, they now tend to be built out at sea, and last year, wind power contributed to 18 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation.

Russell Edmonson, managing director of Tekmar Energy, which is based in Newton Aycliffe, says: “A lot of people don’t realise just how much electricity is produced.

“It is quite staggering how many wind farms there are, even in the UK, and the UK is the market leader for it.

“People do not realise it because they are over 20 miles away offshore.”

Tekmar Energy recently signed a contract with the world’s largest offshore wind developer Ørsted, to provide its patented cable protection systems for the Hornsea Two offshore wind farm.

The 30 metre-long systems, made from polyurethane and cast iron, connect to the seabed, and the cable to land, and the bottom of the wind turbine base, to prevent the thick wiring being damaged by the saltwater of the sea, tidal movement and storms.

The new wind farm will be made up of 165 turbines with a combined total capacity of 1.4 GW, providing clean electricity to well more than 1.3 million homes.

The sister project to Hornsea One, which has 170 smaller turbines, is set for completion in 2022 and Tekmar, which employs 115 people, will be providing 346 cable protection systems.

 

 

Russell says: “Around 60 per cent of our revenue is in offshore renewables or wind farms.

“It is the only way to mass produce renewable technology. As an industry, it is growing at around 20 per cent per annum.

“What is very interesting is a lot of big developers are now competing at a zero subsidy level.

“They are undertaking projects with no subsidy from the Government and that means, as an industry, it is slowly transitioning from a Government decision to a commercial decision.

“It is opening up the rest of the world. Europe has led the way in offshore wind power and the technology has been developed and proven. Now the Americans are slowly starting to get on board and we are doing lot more work in Asia. It is very much a growing industry and there is huge potential.”

Tekmar was started by two Norwegian oil and gas industry divers in 1985 as an engineering and projects business, but over the last three decades has transitioned into making products on site and moved into renewables in 2008.

Wind turbines are made in mainland Europe by suppliers such as Siemens before blades are shipped and completed in Hull, but Russell says several companies in the North-East make up the rest of the supply chain.

He says the growing awareness of the need for green energy production means there is now plenty of scope for further opportunities for employment in the sector.

“The North-East is a hub for offshore companies,” he says. “You ultimately have pretty much everything you need, except the turbines, in the North-East to build a wind farm, which is pretty unheard of.

“You have everything from companies who are product suppliers to cable manufacturers to installers.

“There is an entire supply chain in the North-East. It is an industry that is growing so there is huge scope for job creation.

“It is very much a projects industry. We are very much driven by when these projects are green-lighted and how quickly they can go into production.

“The good thing about the renewables market is there is a lot of foresight in the pipeline so you can see what is coming from 12 to 24 months out.”

Source: The Northern Echo

 

 

 

By Andrew Thomas Chair of the International Hearing Access Committee (IHAC)

The building industry has long been aware of the need to create spaces that are accessible, and now the focus is on environments that are inclusive and integrate everyone’s needs.

Assistive listening technology is an essential part of inclusive design to make sure public buildings offer access to the 1 in 6 of the population who have hearing loss.

With a range of solutions available, and the growing popularity among individual users of digital options, it can be tempting to think that well-established technologies like hearing loops may be out of date and installing them now would be a waste of time and money.

The options

Induction or hearing loops are technology that originated in the 1950s yet despite their age, they still offer the best solution. They are the easiest system to use and the only one which is truly universal.

Specifiers can be reluctant to install these systems for fear they will be superseded by one of the burgeoning digital technologies in the very near future.

That’s not the case.

How hearing loops work

Hearing loop systems consist of copper cables, often concealed around the perimeter of a room, that transmit electromagnetic signals from a microphone or other sound source.

Telecoil couplers are small copper wire coils integrated in most hearing aids and cochlear implants. They pick up these electromagnetic signals enabling the user to hear the sound source clearly, cutting out distracting background noise.

For example, a delegate attending a conference may struggle to hear the presentation because of distance, reverberation and background noise in the room. With a hearing loop, they are able to hear the speaker’s voice clearly.

Their energy efficiency means they can be continually running, giving users access at any time. They are universal so no matter where in the world the hearing aid wearer comes from, they will be able to use them. Loops also have no latency which is critical when following an event where images or actions come together with sound.

Infrared and radio frequency systems are also widely used. These can cover large areas and are easier to retro fit but they do require accessories for the user to receive the sound. Their range can also be affected by bright sunlight, glass surfaces or congestion on the bandwidth the system is using.

The future?

Bluetooth offers wireless communication and its development already gives people with hearing loss a number of benefits. However, these are currently only on a personal level and not for large groups, or one to one situations, in public spaces.

Bluetooth can amplify the television or audio sources for users at home, and smartphone apps allow levels in their hearing aids to be altered with one touch.

But the accessories and the hearing aids have to be compatible and different brands won’t work with each other, making them unsuitable for groups of people.

The industry is working on developing a system that will offer standardised Bluetooth technology to allow people with hearing aids to connect to smart devices.

An agreement was formed between the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) and Bluetooth Special Interest Group in 2014 to work together towards this.

However, Bluetooth’s development into a system that can serve groups of people in large areas is some way off.

According to the International Hearing Access Committee, a body comprising hearing aid manufacturers and consumer organisations, there’s unlikely to be significant change within the next 10 – 15 years and beyond.

 

As well as a consensus of opinion needing to be reached on the preferred system, it would need to be thoroughly tested and then widely adopted before it could be regarded as mature and fit for use. A bandwidth for the signal to use would also need to be agreed.

In the meantime, public buildings need to comply with the requirements of the Equality Act and, ideally, the best practice recommendations for creating inclusive spaces as contained in BS8300.

Hearing loops still offer a simple and effective way to offer hearing access, and installed by a specialist engineer, they transform communication at hotel reception desks, conference rooms, at a retail service counter, in a theatre auditorium or a place of worship.

Planning an installation now, or for years to come, will not be a wasted investment whether for a new build or retrofit.

Totalling 11 million, people with hearing loss constitute the largest disabled group in the UK. And with an ageing population their numbers will continue to grow, so there is a clear business case for meeting their needs.

The wheel may be ’old’ technology but it is yet to be overtaken by hoverboards, jet packs or drones as a superior technology to move things from A to B.

 

 

Andrew Thomas is the Chair of the International Hearing Access Committee (IHAC) and the International Hearing Aid Manufacturers Association (IHLMA).

He is also the is the Market Development Director of Contacta Systems Ltd and has more than 30 years’ experience in the sector.

URBAN UNION GOES GREEN WITH ELECTRIC CAR CHARGING POINTS

Scottish home builder Urban Union is encouraging greener living at its Muirton Living development in Perth by installing electric car charging points.

Delivering two charging points to the development, Urban Union hopes to encourage residents to consider opting for plug-in hybrid vehicles by giving them a convenient place to recharge them.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles combine petrol, diesel or alternative fuelled engines with a battery and electric motor, meaning they are more environmentally friendly, reducing air pollution by producing less harmful exhaust emissions.

Neil McKay, Managing Director at Urban Union said: “Cutting environmental emissions is something that all businesses and individuals should be moving towards. We wanted to make it easy for residents at Muirton Living to choose the environmentally friendly option, so that if they did decide to opt for a hybrid vehicle, they can easily plug it in to charge at the development.”

Andrew Kilpatrick, Director of Assets at Caledonia Housing Association said “Working with Urban Union to deliver the electric charging points provides another great environmental facility for the Muirton community. We are delighted to be launching a Muirton community electric car with Co Wheels later in the year which will be able use the charging points and provide convenient access to affordable transport for our Muirton residents.”

Muirton Living is home to a collection of immaculate properties including The Grant, a beautifully presented one bedroom apartment perfect for first time buyers. Available from £105,000, The Grant also comes with a variety of incentives including Help to Buy which enables first time buyers to purchase their home with only a 5 per cent deposit.

The development is ideally situated to make the most of the town’s many amenities, bars and restaurants making it the perfect place for young professionals.

For more information visit www.urbanunionltd.co.uk or call 0131 343 3391.