Q&A with CollinsWoerman’s Arlan Collins

CollinsWoerman Principal Arlan Collins talks to MHN about Sustainable Living Innovations, an innovative approach to off-site multifamily construction.

With the launch of its new custom housing product, Sustainable Living Innovations, CollinsWoerman has introduced an innovative approach to off-site multifamily construction, one it claims can not only speed up the construction process and reduce costs, but also reduce carbon emissions by leaps and bounds. It has described this method as “like an erector set” or a “kit of parts.” CollinsWoerman Principal Arlan Collins talks to MHN about this new technology.

MHN: What exactly is a “kit-of-parts” solution to urban living? How does this differ from other modular construction of multifamily buildings?

Collins: A “kit of parts” refers to the pre-finished components that are constructed off-site then assembled at the building site. Each of SLI’s partner companies builds individual components in different locales so there is no central plant or infrastructure investment necessary to build the pieces. In addition, all the pieces in the building can be installed simultaneously, drastically reducing the time of construction. Our model is entirely customizable, making SLI suitable for any application requiring a bedroom and a bathroom including apartments, condos, resorts, hotels, student housing or even military housing.

This method makes SLI the most flexible, efficient, custom housing product on the market, and the only pre-fabricated system on the market that is scalable for mid-rise structures. We’ve been able to achieve this through extraordinary collaboration with our partner companies.

MHN: Does SLI consider this a new approach to “modular,” or do you not use that term because you see it as something different?

Collins: SLI’s approach is different than most of the modular solutions that we are familiar with because they ship space–a room or a few rooms, be it a bath or bedroom–and then they plug the rooms together. We are a kit of parts, so we don’t ship finished space; we ship pieces of the space. Inherently, “modular” is less flexible because the space is so big. We did what we did because we thought the market needed more flexibility in terms of both site and program. Our way allows us to fit the site more efficiently than it would if we were dealing with a prefabricated space. We can change the size of the unit, to a certain degree, change the number of rooms in a unit, or change the shape of building to fit any urban footprint. Also, most modular buildings require the market to adapt to a certain space. When we build a building, you can’t tell it was brought in piece by piece. It’s invisible in the final product, because it’s custom, unlike typical modular offerings.

MHN: Can you give us a breakdown of how this method is cost effective and energy efficient? Presumably, saving on materials and waste plays into it.

Collins: Our unique design creates a building that has the same amount of living space as traditional architecture but eliminates wasted space such as windowless hallways and corridors found in traditional architecture. This design means 20 percent less building area, which results in 20 percent less energy and materials needed to erect and maintain the building. In lieu of this wasted space, we’ve created more natural light by utilizing open walkways and ceiling-to-floor windows that illuminate each room of the unit and create a space that is more efficient to heat and cool.

MHN: How does the design itself reduce a building’s carbon footprint?

Collins: At SLI, sustainability is baked right in–to our culture and our products. We’ve tested our model and believe that when all is said and done, SLI can reduce carbon emissions by 75 percent through a number of strategies:

  • A more efficient design of space means reduced materials used to construct it, more open space, and a smaller building footprint overall.
  • Institutional-quality materials means a longer lifespan and greater return on financial and environmental investment.
  • A component-based design means the most efficient use of any site without reinventing design solutions.
  • Mostly off-site fabrication means a shorter construction phase and longer use of existing buildings.
  • In addition, a shorter construction phase means lowered impacts on traffic, neighbors and infrastructure, and fewer worker trips to the job site.
  • Natural light penetrates to each room in the unit and cuts down on energy usage.
  • Natural ventilation and shading strategies create comfortable spaces without wasteful equipment.
  • SLI buildings are all designed to meet LEED Silver certification at a base level.

Photo: Doug Scott

MHN: Your company claims that this approach also results in better living experiences. Surely old hands in the industry have met these ideas with a degree of skepticism. What do you say to the nonbelievers?

Collins: Take a look for yourself. We’ve built a life-size model to show people the bigger living environment. The money saved in design and construction allows for high-quality materials to be used, enhancing the value and durability of the product as well as delivering a better overall living experience. The cutting-edge design, urban feel and sustainability of the building appeal to Gen Y, which makes up the growing majority of the renter pool.

SLI buildings feature high-quality cabinets, frosted-glass shower doors and wood paneling. Ceiling-to-floor glass windows, polished concrete floors and walls built to condominium sound standards offer occupants a living experience once thought only to come at a high price. The design eliminates wasted space by trading windowless hallways for open courtyards. Everyone who’s seen it to date has commented on the quality of the finishes and the size of the unit–specifically, how large it feels for such an efficient space.

MHN: What are some of the pitfalls you had to avoid in developing this approach?

Collins: Our solution required full integration of all disciplines. This is very difficult to achieve in an industry where most efforts are siloed by discipline. We needed parts that were integrated with three or four different disciplines in one part, and the industry struggled to make those parts efficiently. We’ve got lots of new thinking in our solution, even though our industry has been building components for decades. The idea has not been applied to an entire building until now.

MHN: What elements make the timing right for this kind of building?

Collins: SLI’s design has implications for the rental market nationally, thanks to demographic and economic trends that favor renting. This solution comes at the perfect time for the real estate industry because the need for high-quality, affordable, urban multifamily housing has never been greater. Applying conventional methods to new market realities is riskier than exploring new models that come with greater rewards. Developers are looking for new strategies and solutions, and SLI offers a high-quality, highly flexible solution at a competitive price in half the time for design and construction. It’s really a new way of living made possible by a new way of building.

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