Industry Watch

A Minneapolis home designed by Hive Modular

A modular approach

Why Hive Modular has proved well adapted to dramatic changes in the housing industry

By Nora Clos
Sunday, July 27, 2014

When architects Marc Asmus, Bryan Meyer, and Paul Stankey co-founded Hive Modular in 2004, they had design in mind. Specifically, they wanted to unite the design sensibility of a traditional architecture firm with the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of prefab construction.

Previously, Asmus was a founding partner at Minneapolis-based Yunker/Asmus Architects, a more traditional firm focused on the high-end residential market. Meyer and Stankey were fellow architects at the firm. “While we were there, we had talked about trying to figure out a way to make new construction cheaper,” says Asmus. 

At the time, he continues, there was a significant lack of entry-level housing options in terms of new construction. The trio saw this as an opportunity to introduce a design-conscious approach at an affordable price-point to an industry that had taken the route of quantity over quality.

Why prefab? A myriad of reasons, says Asmus, including sustainability and reducing costs. “[Prefab] is almost always faster, which translates into saving because time is money,” he says.

After exploring a variety of prefab construction options, including panelized construction and the use of shipping containers, the three settled on modular construction as the basis for their new Minneapolis-based firm. Modular housing is constructed in a factory setting, making the construction process faster, more efficient, and more sustainable than housing built on site.

“We determined that modular construction required the least amount of reinventing the wheel; it’s the most established way of doing prefab,” explains Asmus. “It has been around for 50 years. The industry just hadn’t worked with architects up to that point.” 

The homes Hive builds are, for the most part, “volumetric modular,” meaning they are shipped from the factory as a set of fully enclosed rooms, complete with windows, doors, sheetrock, flooring, plumbing, and electric. This method allows for faster completion times, from the months it takes to build on site to a matter of weeks. 

A key factor to time-savings is that rather than building a foundation and then constructing the home on top of it, construction of the modules (at the factory) and the on-site foundation can happen simultaneously, cutting a significant amount of time out of the process. 

After the modules are completed in the factory, they are shipped to the site, where they are placed on the foundation and attached to one another. All finishing work — such as painting and installing cabinetry — can then be done inside the already-sealed, weatherproof modules.

Building in a controlled factory environment is also more sustainable, Asmus explains. There is no need to weatherproof a construction site, which results in a considerable amount of waste. All the components from suppliers arrive at the modular factory cut to size and ready to be installed, reducing the amount of material waste generated. Furthermore, Asmus says, Hive has made significant efforts to work with clients to get their homes LEED certified and make modular projects as energy efficient as possible.

When they launched in 2004, the Hive team decided their best chance at success was to hit the ground running. At the time, other firms were also experimenting with the idea of merging prefab construction and high-end architecture, but none of these ideas had yet become a reality. “We figured we’d set ourselves apart if we got something built right away,” says Asmus. “Then when people ask what it’s going to cost, we aren’t just guessing.” 

Stankey served as the company’s “guinea pig.” He had never owned a house before but was in the market for one, so he was perfectly positioned to represent Hive’s target market: first-time homeowners looking for an affordable but design-conscious option.

“Because it needed to be very inexpensive, we ended up finishing the last 30 percent of Paul’s house ourselves,” says Asmus, as opposed to working with a contractor. The Hive team, with help from Stankey’s wife and brother, worked on the house weekends and evenings. They laid the floors, tiled the bathrooms, and installed counters and cabinets, among other duties.

The home, in northeast Minneapolis, was completed in 2005. Stankey, whose previous residence was constructed in 1906, says the move to a modular home was “a bit dramatic, to say the least.” The biggest difference? The home’s efficiency. “Our utility bills are a fraction of what they used to be,” he explains, adding that the open layout and amount of natural light are also great advantages.

“We don’t need any lights on until the sun goes down,” he says. “We love it.” Stankey, his wife, and their dog still live in the house today.

Armed with a finished product and practical knowledge of the process they would be using, the Hive team set out to build relationships with manufacturing companies. According to Asmus, this proved difficult at first.

“Back in 2004 when we started, and the residential construction industry was going great,” he explains, “a lot of the factories were making and selling at their full capacities already, and didn’t want to have to deal with an architect who was trying to get them to do things differently. A lot of them hung up on us; they weren’t interested.”

After 100-plus phone calls, the Hive team ended up with just a handful of modular home manufacturers across the Midwest that were willing to work with them. And it was a challenge to get them to deliver the level of quality Hive had in mind. Their modules were relatively low finish and without much consideration for aesthetics. “People weren’t really concerned about the things that we, as architects, are concerned about,” Asmus explains. 

The more Hive worked with any given factory, however, the better the manufacturers understood what the firm was trying to do, and the more receptive they became. “The industry was a big ship to try and turn,” Asmus says. 

But turn it would. Several years after the firm was founded, the industry situation made an about-face in the company’s favor. Around 2007, the housing bubble burst. Prices bottomed out and residential construction ground to a near halt. Suddenly, Asmus explains, “manufacturers were calling Hive and asking to work with us.” 

Today, Hive works with about 10 modular manufacturers, most in the Midwest. They tend to be boutique-style factories, which, like Hive, have chosen the path of quality over quantity. Each has its own supply lines for products such as windows and doors, plumbing fixtures, and electrical wiring.

Hive tends to work with manufacturers located near its projects, which keeps costs low and limits environmental impact.  “We try to cover things regionally, so we’re never shipping modules more than a certain distance,” Asmus explains. 

The firm has worked on nearly 40 projects so far. The vast majority have been located in the Midwest, with some in Canada and a few as far west as Colorado. 

The number of projects the firm is working on at any given time has varied considerably over the years. “Prior to the downturn,” Asmus says, “we had three to four projects a year.” Once business began to grow thin in the United States, the firm focused more energy on the Canadian market, where in 2009 it had a handful of projects, in addition to several in the United States. 

Currently Hive has four or five active modular projects underway. That said, quantity has never been the firm’s objective, and the design team has stayed small (three partners and one student intern), keeping overhead costs low. 

Whichever partner responds first to an inquiry tends to head up that project, but all the designers collaborate on each project. “We split almost all responsibilities,” Stankey says.

In terms of competition, currently there isn’t much, according to Stankey. “Back when we started [in 2004] there were numerous other architects trying their hands at this [high-design prefab], but almost all had fizzled out by 2007.” 

His theory is that they were going about it wrong, approaching it as a fad, the cool new thing in architecture, as opposed to embracing the true efficiency and sustainability that modular homes can offer in the long term when done well.

A further result of the major changes in the housing market in the past 10 years has been that on-site building has actually ended up being less expensive than modular construction, in many cases. 

As an architecture firm, of course, Hive isn’t limited to modular construction; it is simply the company’s focus. Offering site-build options has allowed it to stay flexible, changing with the market and with the times.

“Contractors are so desperate for work that they’re pretty aggressive on pricing,” says Asmus. “Modular factories are kind of fixed; they’re already paying low wages compared to a contractor, and they’re already buying material in bulk, so they can’t really get their prices down.”

One site-build project by the firm is a series of live-work artist homes located on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis’s Willard-Hay neighborhood. Completed in June, the single-family houses are part of the Green Homes North project, a collaboration between of City of Minneapolis and Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes the development of arts infrastructure. The project aims to build 100 eco-friendly homes over five years with the goal of revitalizing several North Minneapolis neighborhoods.

“Originally [Artspace] came to us with modular in mind,” says Asmus. “Obviously those projects are built on a really tight budget, and it ended up being cheaper to site-build.”

According to Sarah Swingley, project manager at Artspace, Hive’s combination of aesthetics and affordability was just what the doctor ordered. “For artists, we usually like lots of light, open floor plans, and that seemed to fit with Hive’s modern style and how they design their houses,” she says.  

The 1,700-square-foot homes feature open layouts and large windows, offering a bounty of natural light. Even the basements, where the studio spaces are located, are well illuminated by 11 feet of egressed window wells and boast nine-foot ceilings.

The shift away from modular hasn’t diverted the company from its original goal, however. “We look at modular construction as just one tool in a large box that when appropriate can be very effective,” notes Stankey.

“We’re not selling these products,” Asmus explains. “The opportunity for us is design. We’re architects first, and how it gets built comes second.”