By Vaughn Buckley, CEO, Volumetric Building Companies (VBC)
In late February 2022, on a trip down south to one of the Volumetric Building Companies’ (VBC) factories in rural North Carolina, I found one of our employees, for now, we will call her Natalya, working hard at her desk, and quietly crying.
I knew she was Russian and while I didn’t know the exact reason for her tears, I was able to make an educated guess.
We sat in a private room where she shared that her sister was living in Kyiv, married to a Ukrainian officer and raising their young child there.
Without knowing what else to do, I offered words of consolation and support – that if she needed anything, to reach out.
Just one week later, she did just that.
A panicked phone call, suggesting that “…the Russians are in Kyiv! My sister lives in Irpin. They need help!” was received by our Team.
At the time, we knew the situation in Ukraine was bad, but now in hindsight we look back and shudder at the possibility of a loved one living in the hardest hit part of the country during a shock invasion.
My frame of reference for European refugee support options was limited, but I did have people that I trusted in Europe. I reactively said “…get her to the Polish border, we will take it from there;” not knowing if we could do anything once she got there.
I picked up the phone and dialed my European executive team for help. By this point, a few weeks into the war, most of them already had refugees living in their houses and here I was now calling to ask them for additional support.
But, I will never forget the response – “I’m on my way”; a voice of encouragement and support came through. And it was the voice of VBC’s European Chief Operating Officer (COO).
My initial confused reaction, “on the way where?” rang out, and wasn’t made substantially clearer when I got the simple reply – “the Ukraine border.”
Our COO drove 500 miles through the night into the middle of one of the largest humanitarian crises Europe had seen since WWII. And even though there was sheer chaos and uncountable crowds at the border, we managed to find Natalya’s daughter, ‘Irina’.
VBC has several dozen refugees working in our Polish plants and is actively working on sponsoring more to help them get to the US. It was and continues to be an eye-opening, heart-breaking and gut-wrenching experience for everyone involved; and ours is just one of millions of similar stories that continue to evolve a year later
Roughly one year prior, the first day of the new year in 2022; this was an exciting time for the modular construction company I founded in 2009, Volumetric Building Companies (VBC).
You might ask yourself – What is modular construction?: Think apartment buildings built in a factory and assembled with cranes like huge lego blocks.
We were a rapidly growing company that at the time was expanding operations into Europe with the acquisition of a Polish factory, and a UK subsidiary. We anticipated many of the challenges of global expansion; geographic disparity, cultural differences, time zone dislocation, currency risk, interpretation issues and the integration of a new team.
War, however, was not a challenge, not one that I had predicted, nor for which we were prepared.
The raw emotion that surrounded VBC’s newest employees in Poland when considering the potential for Russian aggression was borne out of proximity, both in time and in location, to the horrors of the past.
Their concern was contagious and we knew, back at our Philadelphia HQ, that we needed to be prepared to do whatever it took to address and overcome constantly changing obstacles – we just did not yet know what that may entail.
Our global team knew we were uniquely positioned to “do something,” and within a few weeks, they had developed an ingenious prototype – A building constructed with volumetric modules, pre-finished apartment units specifically designed to house refugees and scale quickly.
These are units that could be set up in any country that needed to house refugees as an interim step, while allowing those same assets to be disassembled and relocated to Ukraine after the war ended, to stabilize reconstruction efforts with a huge amount of pre-built inventory, ready for rapid deployment.
This was an idea that was received enthusiastically by NGOs, government agencies, charities and private philanthropists alike. However, there was a problem, and it’s the same problem that we face in seeking affordable housing funding in the US.
That problem is the lack of aligned interests – in this case, of capital allocation and government agency prerogatives.
For you see, capital designed to help house refugees (temporarily) is not typically garnered from the same pool of money that will be used to rebuild Ukraine for those same refugees when they return home – The capital typically follows the mandates of the departments controlling the funds. This kind of building offers the most efficient use of limited capital by far: two buildings and two uses with one product, but it is an idea that challenges the norm in global funding for housing; it is not easily paid for from any sole source.
It is this kind of thinking, which is siloed and non-holistic, which drives waste and inefficiency in the US construction industry, just as it prevents efficient housing of refugees.
So what do we do to address outdated thinking in order to make housing efficient and affordable?
Housing cost, housing accessibility, construction efficiency and labor availability are really important issues that most policy-makers are not even considering on a holistic basis.
Through either a lack of education on the subject, or lack of presented solutions, elected officials often defer to “how they have always done it,” to address crises, rather than exploring and encouraging new systems.
These issues are not just correlative but are directly inter-linked and can be impacted across the board by enhancing labor efficiency, revising building codes, creating new funding initiatives, and, most importantly, considering waste reduction and housing life cycles in their decisions; something that manufacturing excels at and construction has been unable to meaningfully change in more than 150 years.
We have not seen an industrial revolution as powerful to change the way we build since the invention of power tools.
The time for change is now, we must build the future of housing.
Every industry, from farming to printing, has modernized – yet construction has not.
Modular or factory construction methods help mitigate or solve many of the risks and challenges of declining skilled labor availability through increased efficiency.
Efficiency in labor has major benefits, including time to build and centralization of the work. As the construction skilled workforce continues to decline in size and skill, we need to encourage new people to enter the industry, reduce barriers to entry (both physical and psychological) and celebrate the value of tradespeople.
Factory construction can do that – people with disabilities can work in our factories and we have some of the highest front-line construction worker female participation in the industry, with almost 20% of our workforce being female, while the industry non-office worker average participation is closer to 2%.
With refugees and veterans alike working in the production line, we have a real opportunity to build the housing the world needs, with a workforce that is more representative of the people, those that need to live in them.