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Prefab “starter home” is under construction, destined for a vacant lot in Back of the Yards

Published on Apr. 22, 2020 by Steven Vance

Updated on Apr. 23, 2020

Prefab “starter home” is under construction, destined for a vacant lot in Back of the Yards

A little over a month ago a new construction permit was issued for a single-family house in Back of the Yards. I see single-family house permits issued everyday, but this was one unique because it described it as “modular” and “prefabricated”. The buzzwords caught my attention because these methods are rare in Chicago but becoming common elsewhere.

In 2016, a 55-unit building was created with modular apartments in New York City. In 2018, a 22-unit building was erected in Berkeley in four days. Skender, a local general contractor, has built a factory in Little Village for modular building construction for future residential projects in Chicago.

The permit from March, however, is from a local company called Kinexx Modular Construction. Kinexx’s founders are Paul Tebben, an architect, and Josh Braun.

A rendering of the starter home that will be built on the vacant lot in Back of the Yards.

The house they’re building is a two-story “starter home” — shown above — with a target sale price in the low 200s, excluding the cost of the land. The Resurrection Project, an affordable housing manager and developer based in Pilsen, owns the land.

I talked to Tebben and Braun to learn the details of the house design as well as their plan to get more prefabricated modular houses built in Chicago.

Starter house characteristics:

  • The house has a floor area of 1,450 square feet
  • 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms
  • 17' wide (the standard Chicago lot is 25', and a setbacks usually allow for a 20' wide house)
  • 45' deep (the standard Chicago lot is 125' deep)
  • 9' ceiling height
  • 24' tall

Braun said that they designed a two bedroom version, “but we found that in some neighborhoods, there are different market norms, and we talked to some community group leaders and their constituents who said they’d rather have a house with three bedrooms even if they’re slightly smaller.”

The house is raised two feet above grade, and there is an inaccessible crawl space below the house for two reasons: Keep some mechanicals above ground for easier access, and to create a small front stoop, “to engage with the legacy of stoops in the neighborhood”.

On its size, Braun said “we’re trying to make a product that most working people can attain. Everyone wants something to call their own. I don’t think that has ever changed, although the way to attain it has.” The target sale price includes a foundation, two-car parking pad, appliances, utility connections, and landscaping.

A rendering shows an alternate starter home design, with a gabled roof.

Kinexx aren’t planning to sell to the homeowner, though. Their market is developers who already have five or more lots, no matter if they’re for profit, non-profit like TRP, or if the houses are to fulfill an ARO requirement. The long-term plan may include selling to individuals who already have land.

Code compliance

Chicago updated its building code last year and it takes full effect on August 1, 2020. “We haven’t had to adjust significantly to the code changing mid-stride”, Tebben said. The Chicago Department of Buildings, Braun said, “has been wonderful to work with. Commissioner Frydland and her staff have been supportive from two and a half years ago to two weeks ago”. Their discussions have helped to establish a process for handling city-required inspections. Since the house is built off-site and moved to an on-site location in a completed form, it will work differently than typical construction. The house design doesn’t need any code variations, though.

This information may be helpful to the many other prefabricated and modular housing designers and builders across the country who are interested in selling their products in Chicago once City Council adopts an ordinance to re-legalize coach houses. I’ve talked to manufacturers in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Nevada about the upcoming — but not yet introduced — law.

“Our general understanding is that the building inspectors will do a rough inspection in the factory at the time the structure is reaching 80 percent finish, transported to the lot, inspected again, completed, and then inspected after completion”, they said.

Once it’s complete, Braun and Tebben will conduct a blower door test to determine how tight the building envelope, which Tebben said “is the first line of defense” against the elements and to maintain energy efficiency. The house’s building envelope “is tighter than any stick built frame house on the market”. The blower door test is used to certify houses built to Passive House standards: a powerful fan pulls air from the house and out the specialized blower door to measure the air infiltration rate of outside air coming in. “We know that the house is going to be built very well under optimal conditions inside of a factory”, Braun said.

Two-flat and three-flat designs are also in the works. The two-flat will be a larger single-family house with a ground floor rental unit.

Of course I asked about installing a Kinnexx-built accessory dwelling unit at the rear of a lot. Braun said, “We’re definitely interested in the concept, and we showed the starter home to people at the Department of Housing, but we haven’t created a solution for getting a home to the back of a lot.” Tebben added, “the challenge for doing that is access, and we want to fully understand how to develop on a lot with an existing house.”

“ADUs weren’t our original motivation”, Tebben said. The team’s design research started four years ago with the belief that “a vast percentage of the residential lots are the same size, within a foot or so”. The standard-size lots are “begging for a modular product because the lots are very predictable”, Tebben said.

The goals are for more than high-quality and lower-cost house design. The company aims for easing development throughout the entire process. “We are soup to nuts”, Braun said, “providing the design, obtaining the permit, hooking up utilities, building the foundation, and the landscaping.” In three years they want to have a turnkey solution in place to allow an owner of vacant lots to be able to pay a deposit and get the house keys 75 days later.

Construction progress

“COVID has created some interesting obstacles”, Braun said, when I asked about what the next steps are after getting a permit. “The next milestones are to build it, transport it, and erect it.”

Tebben reported yesterday that construction started last week. Four to six construction workers are needed each day, and “fortunately, during these early stages, the effects of the pandemic have been limited to the implementation of extra safety precautions”, Tebben said.

Prefab “starter home” is under construction, destined for a vacant lot in Back of the Yards was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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