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The $600,000 problem. Why does it cost so much to build in greater Boston, and what can be done?

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The Boston Globe, December 2023

On a gray morning this month, a construction worker in a neon vest knelt with his tools in a concrete foundation dug into a hillside on the western edge of Somerville, literally laying the groundwork for a project that could help change the way housing gets built around here. At the same time, 25 miles away in a factory in Littleton, some of the 168 apartments that will soon rise from this foundation were being hammered together, piece by piece. This 12-story building underway in Somerville’s Clarendon Hill public housing complex is one of the most ambitious experiments in factory-built — or “modular” — housing in New England. By building the apartments — including kitchens and bathrooms — offsite and then stacking them like Legos on this sliver of land, this project’s developers say they’ll deliver it 40 percent faster, for substantially less cost, than a similar-sized building they’re constructing the typical way in Boston.

In a business where time is money, that’s a huge difference, the sort of factor that just might jumpstart construction and begin to put a dent in the region’s massive housing shortage. Aaron Gornstein, a former top state housing official who now leads POAH Inc., the developer of Clarendon Hill, said this approach could be a game-changer. If it can be repeated elsewhere. “And we don’t know that yet,” he said.

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