A grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission will help Virginia Tech create a road map to address the affordable housing crisis and promote innovative and sustainable construction practices in Central Appalachia.

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE), in partnership with the Virginia Center for Housing Research in the College of Engineering, received a $453,743 grant through the commission’s Appalachian Regional Initiative for Stronger Economies (ARISE) initiative that aims to drive large-scale, regional economic transformation through multistate collaborative projects across Appalachia.

The Virginia Tech-led project will develop a comprehensive workforce training strategy for industrialized construction, a promising approach that aims to reduce costs, waste, and emissions while addressing housing affordability challenges. After the completion of the planning grant, the team will be eligible to apply for $10 million in implementation funding.

Often referred to as modular or off-site construction, industrialized construction involves the manufacturing of building components in a controlled factory setting and their subsequent assembly at a construction site. This approach not only speeds up construction but also reduces waste and minimizes the environmental impact of building projects.

“Housing is an issue that economic developers in every community wrestle with,” CECE Executive Director John Provo said. “Central Appalachia, with its existing workforce skills and infrastructure, is poised to be a national leader in industrialized construction, meeting the demand for affordable and market-rate housing that attracts workers and companies to the region.”

The rural areas of the region often face economic challenges with the decline of coal and traditional manufacturing. By partnering with local organizations, CECE can leverage Virginia Tech’s expertise and resources to grow and diversify the area’s economy, fostering greater economic and community resilience.

CECE, part of Outreach and International Affairs, also is a member of a regional consortium that recently won a federal Tech Hubs Strategy Development Grant focused on additive manufacturing and applied materials.

“These collaborations promote a sense of inclusivity and solidarity, strengthening the university’s commitment to the broader region and developing a reciprocal relationship that benefits both the university and the communities it serves,” Provo said.

CECE’s associate director for research development, Sarah Lyon-Hill, will lead the ARISE project. She said the region’s projected industry job growth, entrepreneurial spirit, and education assets provide the ideal environment for catalyzing and growing a state-of-the-art industrialized construction industry.

“Historically, Appalachia was an engine of U.S. industry. However, in the past several decades, many areas of the region have experienced severe economic contraction. In the past six years alone, Appalachia has lost over 50,000 mining jobs and 10,000 manufacturing jobs,” Lyon-Hill said.

The industrialization of construction is inevitable, according to Nol Browne, founder of ADL Ventures, the lead industry partner for the ARISE grant and a venture development firm focused on scaling decarbonization technologies in the buildings, energy, and transportation sectors. “The construction industry cannot sustain itself the way its key factors are trending.”

Browne said the workforce pipeline is diminishing while the demand for affordable structures is growing exponentially.

“This burgeoning gap between the supply and demand is exacerbated by evolving economic and social challenges such as the rising cost of materials, supply chain issues, a skilled-labor shortage, and lack of technology integration — just to name a few," he said.

The project will help address the labor shortage by introducing middle and high school students to the industrialized construction industry through visits to local factories and job sites.

“Providing students an up-close look at the careers available in industrialized construction can create a tangible connection between classroom learning, real-world applications, and their future,” Lyon-Hill said.

The  Virginia Center for Housing Research will advise CECE, facilitate regional workshops, and lead the development of the road map’s curriculum. Led by Andrew McCoy, the Beliveau Professor and associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, the Blacksburg-based center is the official housing research center for the commonwealth.

The center has addressed affordable-housing needs across Virginia, including building Richmond’s first 3D-printed house and partnering with the Virginia Tech Richmond Center to develop a program to help construction companies grapple with a shortage of project managers.

“Combining better options for affordable housing, the creation of new workforce opportunities, including needed skills and training, and the growth of local economies around industrialized construction makes this project special,” McCoy added. “We have an opportunity to change the industry and the way Appalachian residents live and work.”

The project will serve Virginia and West Virginia, as well as Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

Other partners include Community Colleges of Appalachia, Ohio University, Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service, and over 40 other industry, workforce, education, and economic development organizations. 

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