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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Affordable Three-Flats Made In A Factory? West Humboldt Park Is Getting 10 Of Them — And Other Neighborhoods Could Follow

The method is like "making Lego bricks in the factory that can be put together in the field," said a designer for Skender, the construction company that is collaborating with developer Sterling Bay on the project.

The three-flats would be made in the factory and assembled on-site. "We're making Lego bricks in the factory that can be put together in the field," Tim Swanson said. Swanson is the chief design officer at Skender, the construction company opening the factory.
Courtesy of Skender
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CHICAGO — Sterling Bay, the Lincoln Yards developer, is teaming up with local construction company Skender to bring 30 factory-made affordable homes to the economically depressed West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

They’re the first of many modular home projects the partners aim to build in Chicago with the addition of Skender’s new Little Village factory at 3348 S. Pulaski Road, which will begin production in the coming days.

In West Humboldt Park, the plan is to build 10 steel-frame three-flats, all of them affordable by the city’s definition, on scattered sites throughout the underserved community, said Tim Swanson, chief design officer at Skender.

The development partners are in the middle of securing the properties, which are all privately owned, Swanson said. The exact addresses are not yet available.

Unlike conventional homes built on-site, these will all be built in Skender’s new modular home factory.

Swanson likened the modular method to “making Lego bricks in the factory that can be put together in the field.”

The homes will “look and act and feel like a building that’s being built-on site,” he said. “They’re just going to be built a lot better.”

Skender promises to cut construction time by 80 percent. Each three-flat will take nine weeks to build, the company said. Project costs are also expected to be slashed by 5-20 percent, depending on the job.

“If I’m building a three-flat, the cost of drywall is the cost of drywall. But if I’m running a factory and build large-scale, I’m getting scale efficiency at cost,” Swanson said.

Modular homes are popular in other countries across the world, but are only beginning to take off in the United States.

“We carry a stigma around manufactured homes, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Swanson said. “We’re trying to change that narrative.”

Sterling Bay partnered with Skender because it sees the construction company as a leader in finding new ways to solve Chicago’s affordable housing crisis, said Shelly Burke. Burke is director of community engagement and diversity compliance and senior counsel at Sterling Bay.

“We understand there is an affordability issue in Chicago and we understand we need to move as quickly as possible,” Burke said. “We love the fact that this product can be produced inside a factory.”

The modular construction method allows the project partners to deliver homes cheaper, Swanson said.

“What I get excited about is three-flats that would be high-end, market-rate level if I dropped them into the market,” Swanson said. “This commitment to bringing this level of quality to more and more people in Chicago — higher-performing buildings, better interior finishes, lower costs. … Those are seismic shifts to what a lot of people are used to.”

In a compromise with aldermen, Sterling Bay agreed to build 600 on-site affordable units as part of the developer’s massive $6 billion Lincoln Yards project. Half of them can be built within 3 miles of the project site.

Burke said the West Humboldt Park modular homes are not meant to satisfy the Lincoln Yards affordable housing requirement, however.

“This first set of housing doesn’t meet that 3-mile radius,” Burke said. “Is it possible that [affordable] housing requirement will be Skender modular homes? Yes. But these Humboldt Park ones are not that.”

In addition to the West Humboldt Park project, Sterling Bay and Skender are partnering on another modular development, this one in River West.

That plan calls for a seven-story, 83-unit apartment building at 1100 W. Grand Ave. Swanson said the project partners are looking to build as-of-right, meaning they’re not seeking a zoning change. The River West project is another opportunity for Skender — and Sterling Bay — to prove the modular method works.

“The three-flats are a really good example of how we do fill-in housing within a neighborhood. The River West project is an example of how we do that at a more dense scale,” Swanson said.

An 11-story modular building that Skender currently has in the design phase.

Still, Swanson said the project partners are focusing on the West Humboldt Park project first for a reason.

“We want to walk before we run,” he said.

The West Humboldt Park project has the support of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).

“They should take about three months — that is going to be a shot in the arm for development in that neighborhood to help stabilize, move new people in and make it safer,” Burnett said.

So far, the community response has been mixed, Burnett said. He said some neighbors get nervous when they hear the name Sterling Bay, which is now tied to the controversial Lincoln Yards project.

“Some people see this as a way for them to make some money,” Burnett said, before adding, “But these projects aren’t going to make people rich.”

Swanson said the modular method, if as successful as they anticipate, could play a large role in solving Chicago’s affordable housing crisis.

“By Christmas, 30 families will have homes,” Swanson said. “It’s a pretty powerful way to respond to the affordable housing crisis.”

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