Tech Blitz Teams Tackle Affordable Housing in Atlanta

A vintage photo of Paschal's Motel, the site selected by the winning team to add affordable housing units through modularization. Photo copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

During the fourth annual Tech Blitz, six teams of students and industry professionals focused on ways that civil engineers can innovate within the construction industry to bring down costs and help combat rising rent prices across the city of Atlanta. 

The event, hosted by the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is an all-day hackathon with a focus on pushing the technological boundaries of the construction industry.

This year, the teams were challenged to utilize prefabrication and modularization construction principles to decrease construction costs by 70 percent without significantly impacting other project controls like safety and quality.

The Nov. 6 event featured a panel of guest speakers that educated the teams about the scope of the issues surrounding affordable housing as well as some of the emerging solutions that can be utilized to lower construction costs.

Atlanta’s Chief Housing Officer Terri Lee and Bithia Ratnasamy, a project manager for in the Office of the Mayor, spoke about affordability in the city of Atlanta.

Affordable housing can mean many things: homes for sale or for rent; homes that are subsidized by the government to keep prices low or housing that is naturally at a lower price point through cost-effective construction or other market forces.

Affordability is also different for a single person than a family of five. Ratnasamy said a good metric for affordable housing is a home that costs no more than 30 percent of any household’s monthly income.

“What’s affordable to you is affordable to you, and what’s affordable to me is affordable to me. It’s a very relative term, but of course it’s focusing on low- and moderate-income families,” Ratnasamy said.

Darion Dunn, CE 00, is a member of the School’s External Advisory Board and a managing partner at Atlantica Properties.

Dunn said there are other important factors to consider when thinking about the issue of affordable housing, including population density. More than two million people are projected to move to the metro Atlanta area over the next 20 years.  Meanwhile, as housing near job centers gets more expensive, people move further away to find more affordable housing and spend a higher percentage of their income on transportation to and from work.

“You cannot talk about affordable housing without talking about population density and transportation, and these are two things the civil engineering community can help with,” Dunn said.

Prefabrication and lean construction principles are also important ways for the construction industry to tackle the affordable housing problem, Dunn said.

“The total construction costs go down, which makes debt go down, which makes the monthly payments go down for an apartment owner, which affects the rent,” Dunn said.

Before embarking upon the challenge, Tech Blitz participants got inspiration from people who are utilizing non-traditional methods and materials in construction.

Chris Giattina is a Tech alumnus and the CEO of a company called BLOX, which designs and manufactures modules for healthcare facilities. He shared examples of the prefabricated modules his company is creating to quickly build new healthcare facilities while keeping costs low.

The participants were also encouraged to be creative and think outside the box.

Russell Gentry, an adjunct associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, shared information about his research on ways to reuse decommissioned wind turbine blades—which includes using the blades’ non-recyclable composite materials in housing construction.

Following a full day of brainstorming, the teams presented their proposals to a panel of judges.

The winning project proposed revitalizing a historic structure while adding affordable housing through modular building.

The group selected Paschal’s Motor Hotel, a historic building in disrepair located the west side of Atlanta that served as a meeting place during the civil rights movement. Through selective demolition on a portion of the existing motel, the group proposed implementing modularization to create 110 housing units.

Proposed cost-saving measures include the reestablishment of the motel’s restaurant to produce retail leasing fees to offset the renovation debt; advanced framing techniques to reduce material costs by 15 percent; and ductless mini-split heating and cooling systems to eliminate the cost of installing ductwork.

The group speculated that additional savings could come in the form of tax credits that the project could qualify for in addition to a potential partnership with Clark Atlanta University, which currently owns the building.

The team behind the proposal was comprised of four students and four industry professionals: Tech students Ali Lopez, Victoria Lynn, Sandra Diaz and Tobias Kopp, along with Preston Jutte from Kimley-Horn, Alex Darr from Pond, Diana Sacks of SK Collaborative and Vincent Harvey from Turner Construction. 

Lee, the city of Atlanta’s chief housing officer, praised the event and the innovative ideas the participants brought to the table. She offered to introduce the winning team to the city design studio to further develop their concept.

“This has been phenomenal and has been very helpful for the city as we think through how to be more innovative and more creative,” Lee said. “It was very evident that there was a lot of thought and lot of work but more importantly a lot of passion that went into each one of the presentations.”