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    Friday, August 23, 2019-4:43:50P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Cheap, permanent, high-quality houses for NMI

RECONSTRUCTION is perhaps the CNMI’s most daunting task of the new year. Thousands of homes remain destroyed, and while great strides have been made in terms of securing short-term housing for victims of Typhoon Yutu, the CNMI has yet to find a viable way to rebuild long-term residences that can withstand the next super typhoon. 

But Chris Fryling, president and principal at N15 Architects, may have figured out an important piece of the puzzle; he and his team are working on plans for a (very) small two-bedroom modular home built above the International Building Code’s typhoon standards that will cost only $65,000.

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Rebuilding Tinian and Saipan’s southern end is no doubt a daunting task, but local architect Chris Fryling thinks he has the solution: prefab modular concrete homes.  Photo by David Butterfield

Fryling said his firm has always prioritized building efficiency and building efficiently — and the proof was right above his head. What could be mistaken for an upside-down city scape running across the top of the N15 office is actually a mosaic made of hundreds of pieces of discarded Styrofoam of all shapes and sizes.

“The conference room was too echoey and we had just ordered a bunch of computer equipment,” Fryling explained. “I thought, ‘Why are we buying acoustic panels and throwing away Styrofoam?’ So we put it up.”

Finding creative ways to get the most out of materials is imperative for builders on small islands where supplies must be shipped from vast distances at high costs. And Fryling isn’t the first to notice that the CNMI has a desperate need for homes that are easy to build and easy to maintain.

He says his concept came from “years and years of asking, ‘How do we get people into cheap, permanent, high-quality houses?”

Inspiration hit when N15 was working on a condominium project that involved a modular system in which building kits were manufactured off-island by robots, shipped to Saipan, and constructed on-site.

“I think the answer is in the technology of having it done elsewhere for less,” he said, “offering a higher-quality product for a lower price.”

This was before Yutu made landfall. 

“After Yutu hit, we developed the lowest-cost house possible because there are so many people out there who lost their homes and don’t have a whole lot of money, but they’re tired of the anxiety of living somewhere that might blow away.”

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An artist’s rendition of Chris Fryling’s tentative model of a modular two-bedroom “Core House.”  Contributed photo

Fryling says the 609-square-foot two-bedroom will be modest, but it’s a complete home equipped with a living room, kitchen and bathroom. It’s meant to function as a “Core Home” to which additions can easily be made as families get larger and incomes grow. Eventually, homeowners can opt into a variety of modular additions, mixing and matching two-, three-, and four-bedroom plans to best fit their needs.

The kits will be created in an almost entirely automated factory in China that Fryling said was as long as two football fields, but staffed by fewer than ten employees.

“I asked, ‘Is it breaktime? Is it the holidays? What’s going on?’” he said, remembering his first visit to the near-empty factory. “And they said, ‘No, this is all the help we need. It’s all done automatically.’”

Nonetheless, manufacturing will be delayed until the end of Chinese New Year, when the factory’s few workers will be available for a new project.

If all goes according to plan, that first round of kits will arrive on Saipan in April. And given that the modular homes can be built in only two weeks (once the site is prepared), the people of the CNMI can expect to see Koblerville’s first tiny home that same Spring.

But Fryling made clear that for all the potential that modular homes may present, they will have to overcome some serious obstacles to make their way to Saipan in any great number. Shipping costs are steep unless N15 starts attracting high-quantity orders, and for the time being, Fryling has only a handful of takers sprinkled across Guam, Saipan, and Tinian.

“Like anything new, there’s going to be people who are hesitant, so it will be slow to get traction,” Fryling said. “That’s why I think it’s important to build a few that people can actually walk through… We’re actually building six first.” 

N15 is currently working alongside the CNMI government and the Northern Marianas Housing Corp. to make the homes available through existing loan and aid programs. They’ve also presented their plans to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.