The Future of Building: Cartridge Construction?

The future of building is based in the effort to answer one of construction’s most pressing challenges: How to efficiently turn the disparate items that make up a structure (wire, pipe, steel, etc.) into components that are fast to install, customizable and — maybe the toughest challenge — modifiable by the people who live inside it.

Most construction today is still piece-by-piece and in the dirt. Of all the complicated things we use, our shelter is about the only thing built this way. And no wonder: A building is massively complex, requiring the attention of planners and craftsmen at every step. So is how we build them, according to timber framer and building pioneer Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes. He calls the predicament all builders are in a “crisis of entanglement.”

“We’ve added technology, systems, layers of things over the last 150 years,” said Benson, but we’ve also buried pipes, wires, cables, HVAC, etc. where we can’t get to them. “And we’ve installed them in a way that is chaotic so you don’t even know where they are.”

Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research is experimenting with a new kind of pre-fab solution.

The goal of its FutureHAUS, still a concept at this point, is “plug and play,” said project manager Bobby Vance. Built on a backbone of structural insulated panels (SIPS), FutureHAUS “cartridges” are being designed to integrate with an existing structure like multi-family housing, senior living, health care and hospitality.

Unlike existing panelized wall systems (units that are the structural walls of the building), FutureHAUS cartridges are designed to be installed within the framework of an existing structure. And rather than an outside-in design, they’re designed from the interior finishes out. Nevertheless, since SIPS are structural, they can be load-bearing members as needed.

Cartridges can be entire rooms — kitchens, bathrooms — or walls or closets. They’re pre-finished, pre-plumbed and pre-wired, noted Vance, and loaded with everything from smart appliances to Murphy beds to home office features.

“Cartridge construction” is, in theory, adaptable housing on a scale not seen before.

The idea is that as a family’s needs change, so can the house. For example, you will be able to literally “unplug” your kitchen and install a different one that meets new needs as a family ages or encounters issues with dementia or mobility. You’ll even be able to take your home with you when you move.

So, is modular, customizable prefab the future of home construction? Virginia Tech’s design is still in the future, and Benson says that’s exactly where it should be. We need to think way ahead — and who better to do it than the students who will inherit it?


Mark Clement ( is a tool expert, licensed contractor, author and tradeshow and live event presenter.

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Center for Design Research