Governor Kotek Celebrates Speed of Mass Timber Modular Housing Pilot Project

Sander Gusinow
Mass Casitas prefab projects in the Port of Portland's Marine Terminal 2

Governor says the Mass Casitas pilot housing project puts a ‘new, viable’ housing option on the table.

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Standing among the hollow wooden housing units in the Port of Portland’s Marine Terminal 2, Gov. Tina Kotek and Sen. Jeff Merkley declared the Mass Casitas $5 million modular housing prototype pilot project a success.

Funded through a state grant and headed by housing nonprofit Hacienda CDC, Mass Casitas — the six boxcar-sized housing prototypes — will be shipped out and installed for families in Portland, Talent, Lincoln City and other Oregon cities in June of this year.

Modular housing units, sometimes called “prefabs” have been floated as a possible solution to help ease Oregon’s housing crisis. Assembling housing units en mass from mass timber allows for the units to be built more quickly by a team indoors, and shipped across the state as needed.

Mass Casitas prefab projects in the Port of Portland’s Marine Terminal 2. Credit Sander Gusinow

Hacienda received the funding for the modular housing project in December of 2021, and began construction on the six housing on Dec. 16, 2022. If the six housing projects meet their deadlines, it would be a one- to two-month improvement on typical home building time and efficiency.

According to the 2019 Survey of Construction from the United States Census Bureau, the average time spent to construct a single home is 8.1 months, which often includes over a month of authorization to start and another seven months to finish the construction.

The project also uses mass timber composite, human-made construction boards made from wood fibers and adhesives. In September of last year, the Oregon Mass Timber Coalitionreceived a $41.4 million EDA grant to develop and expand Oregon’s emerging mass timber industry. The grant was intended as a way to address the state’s housing and wildfire problems, and create good-paying jobs.

Mass Casitas prefab projects in the Port of Portland’s Marine Terminal 2. Credit Sander Gusino

Keith Leavitt, the chief trade and equitable development officer for the Port of Portland, said the housing units would fulfill their mission of disrupting Oregon’s housing market.

Speaking at the debuting event, Kotek said the modular housing units “put another viable option on the table for housing.”

She told Oregon Business the prototypes are significant because of the speed at which they can be produced, and their ability to use mass timber. She said Oregon’s $5 million investment in the prototypes has been worth it, as the state will need produce housing quickly, as well as at cost-effectively.

“This project is using Oregon mass timber, which is number one. It’s the efficiency and effectiveness at which the units can be produced quickly, and the ability to produce them indoors means you can produce them year-round,” says Kotek. “This is what we need here. It’s not going to solve the entire problem, but this is a critical piece to add additional types of homes on the market.”

Oregon currently has a 110,000 housing unit shortfall, according to state economist Josh Lehner. Lehner estimates Oregon needs to add 13,000 new housing units per year to keep up with rising housing demand.

Hacienda CEO Ernesto Fonseca says the focus now is on monitoring the prototypes and being able to secure a factor space with more investment. With proper scaling and once the production process is more streamlined, he estimates the cost of the construction could be lowered between 15 and 30%.

“We’re going to utilize these prototypes to demonstrate that this can indeed be done a very short period of time. The next phase is to work on the financing of a potential factory facility. We will continue to modify some of the designs so that some of them can be used for the unhoused population. We also want to start working on producing stackable units,” says Fonseca.

Fonseca adds that as Oregon’s mass timber industry expands and the supply chain fills, modular housing units like the kind developed by Mass Casitas will become more attractive to builders.

“Obviously, it’s all about economics,” Fonesca says. “Mass timber is a relatively new product that is not mass-produced. Once those supply chains start to get filled, that’s going to reduce the cost. For us, this is about showing this work can in fact be done.”

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