California is extremely challenged by the nation’s ongoing housing crisis. Developers there are pressured by these challenges, so are coming up with innovative ideas that can go to scale, reducing the need in California and beyond.
One such solution also is one of this year’s finalists in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards for Spaces, Places and Cities: ARCspace, ARC standing for affordable, relocatable, community.
Christian Johnston is the founder and CEO at ARCspace and says, “What we need more than just architectural designs and renderings is actual physical building solutions that can go to scale affordably. This current housing crisis needs carbon world solutions that are ready now.”
ARCspace’s innovation is housing at a completely new level, bringing together the expertise of the construction professionals from its parent company, Sustainable Building Council. Those experts have created the ARCspace homes to be power and water grid-independent, with temporary foundations that support relocation, using smart building technologies, energy-efficient materials, and climate-proof elements such as hurricane impact glass and fire-retardant materials.
Plus, the ARCspace project is a modular build to address California’s issues with material and labor. The efficiencies of modular will allow the company to dramatically cut down the longer timeline of stick built.
“The pandemic is pushing the cost of materials up,” Johnston said. “There aren’t a lot of trades; there’s a huge lack of labor. It’s a crunch to build at scale. Plus, we’re approaching the eviction crisis, with 40 million people with threats of eviction. It’s a huge number that might be on the streets. Modular has speed and the accessibility to have prefab elements come together much quicker.”
Those material and labor issues are pushing the cost of construction of most affordable housing units to price out at more than $500,000 in Los Angeles where the company is located. Developers like ARCspace are trying to make all price reduction innovations possible. Johnston believes that ARCspace will make a very consequential impact on development costs, coming in at about 50% less than the average affordable housing.
Andre Champagne serves as the chief sustainability consultant for ARCspace and brings his expertise from the movie industry where he built on-set RVs to be off-grid, a process that led to several patents, including the off-grid mobile capsulation that allows the units to be energy self-contained. On the Avatar and Avengers set, he provided trailers that were there for a year, used daily and never plugged in, and that never required secondary generator backup power. He now uses his expertise to bring the technology to mobile and residential properties.
Champagne worked with a team of engineers from battery manufacturer Lithionics to specifically design and utilize lithium-ion batteries configured to 51 volts versus the standard 120 volts for home use to be more efficient and effective.
He also collaborated with global energy specialist Schneider Electric to transform commercial-grade, off-grid inverters to be the complete accompaniment of the rest of the energy products in the home. Their commercial grade inverters were the right size at 7,000 watts each to handle everything else the home needed to get to net zero, including the incredibly efficient photovoltaic panels and ultra-efficient thermally charged variable refrigerant flow DC inverter HVAC systems that Champagne selected.
Champagne took an auditor’s approach to building the HVAC, since it consumes so much energy.
“A standard home can have an energy draw anywhere from 3,000 to upwards of 15,000 watts with all appliances running simultaneously,” Champagne said. “Our averages were 800 to 4,000 watts, which is a 65% reduction of the standard energy consumption. When you reduce the heating and cooling draw that substantially, the PV and the other energy generating applications on the home become that much more efficient. If I had a 3-bedroom, 3-bath home, and it was running consistently at 5,000 or 6,000 watts and had an array with 4,000 watts, it wouldn’t achieve maximum energy efficiency. You need to start at the interior of the unit and reduce the use power consumption internally, regulate refrigerant value and then set the array to be more than the consumption.”
The system uses Freon that is charged on the roof by running in photovoltaic wrapped copper lines, so it only takes about 20 to 30% of the power to heat the Freon to run the AC. Plus, it’s married with a hyper-efficient, thermally-charged, variable refrigerant flow DC invertor compressor. Champagne says that the greater the sunlight gets outside, the more efficient the HVAC system runs.
These radical energy saving technologies marry with other sustainable solutions designed in the home, such as Hydraloop, a greywater reuse system within the building envelope, which recycles water to then be used for irrigation.
Fresh water is critical now in many parts of the world and will be even more important moving forward, so ARCspace uses low flow water systems, atmospheric water generation units, and hydro-panels that generate two liters of water per day.
If ARCspace can produce homes at this price point and with these technologies, home owners will save hundreds in utilities every year. But, it’s expensive to have these systems for every house, so Johnston envisions a plan to connect four homes and create a microgrid that creates a shared economy with costs shared across the community.
Regardless, these self-sustaining technologies can alleviate the multi-thousand-dollar fees associated with setting up utilities. Plus, the ARCspace homes are relocatable, so if the home has to move, the in-ground cost for putting in utilities isn’t wasted.
Several groups are noticing the innovation that ARCspace offers and are working with the builder now on concepts and prototypes.
Seth Wachtel is an associate professor and the program director of the architecture and community design program at the University of San Francisco and leads the Youth Spirit Artworks Empowerment Village project that offers youth from foster care temporary housing with life and job skills training.
The project just launched 28 homes, but the conventional construction required a lot of time and volunteer labor, which was a strain. So, Wachtel started looking for other ways to do it more rapidly and efficiently. Plus, half of the cost of the project was infrastructure, lines, plumbing, utility, and sewer, which were costs that could be eliminated with a product like ARCspace.
“ARCspace contacted us and it seemed clear that its approach addressed all these issues,” Wachtel said. “A prefabricated system that designs in windows and doors from the beginning, that can be outfitted on the site, and be done relatively quickly would be a perfect solution to add more youth housing.”
Another ARCspace project is currently in the middle of construction to be delivered and to be on display this month in downtown Los Angeles. The display will run six months and will allow the city to have a rapid affordable housing solution as a living lab to understand water and energy use as an ongoing opportunity to test clean technology.
“With ARCSpace, they have thought of the delivery of utilities and innovative ways to do that,” said Elizabeth Selby, who serves as housing innovation, senior project manager at Los Angeles’s Office of Mayor Garcetti. “They are thoughtful and creative. They are putting a prototype up and then we will do a virtual tour of it. When we look at prototypes like this, it allows us to have a conversation about how to scale it.”
While Selby is attracted to innovative ideas, she admits that there are challenges when they get into the details. However, if the concept is a success, there is the opportunity to get more support from the city.
But the bottom line is that California needs housing and needs it now. So, the self-sustaining and temporary elements of the ARCspace solution are critical to bring it online fast.
Johnston and the ARCspace team are working on getting private funding, along with unused property owned by the city, to provide 480-square-foot homes that demonstrate rapid density. There are 600 unused sites currently identified across the city, where he can spend the next couple years delivering four-unit communities.
“Now that we are fully operational with many projects in the pipeline and ready to scale, we have begun conversations with investors about a seed round to accelerate our expansion and meet this critical need faced by our nation,” said An De Vooght, co-founder and global advisor overseeing investor relations and partnerships at ARCspace. “The pandemic has changed the face of housing worldwide, creating a massive market opportunity for social entrepreneurs willing to tackle this issue. I am excited that we can bring a triple-bottom line solution, and that we can do it now.”
The bottom line is that there is a huge, urgent demand for housing across the country. The self-sustaining and temporary elements of the ARCspace solution could bring affordable housing solutions online fast.