Design Matters: The Impacts and Challenges of Utah’s Housing Boom
Civil Engineering for Today’s Residential Development
Nationwide, home sales have skyrocketed, particularly because of the pandemic. As more people seek less urban living environments—away from masses of people (particularly those relocating from California to Utah)—our beautiful state has certainly experienced the ripple effects of the housing boom.
Throughout the state, developments are changing to meet the demand for housing. At FOCUS, we have observed a significant change of plans for residential development. In the past, our site civil engineering plans have mainly been for housing developments consisting of 30–40 lots. Today, we are providing site engineering plans for 100+ lots in a single phase of a housing development. These extreme effects are posing challenges for engineers.
Ripple Effects and Challenges
Utah’s current housing market can have major implications on the success of a project, including scheduling of contractors, the cost of building materials, and, perhaps most challenging, earthworks on a project site.
Earthworks management has become a critical factor when it comes to engineering plans that meet the needs of the housing boom. With the cost of moving dirt increasing dramatically, it has become judicious to move dirt once rather than 2–3 times. For example, moving dirt prior to a curb being installed is almost half the cost of moving the dirt after a curb is installed. This is because the contractor can use much bigger machines before the curb is installed, making it quicker and less costly for everyone involved.
Because FOCUS’s home construction grading and development grading plans take these items into account, they are now much more useful—and cost-effective—for our clients. The home construction grading plan grades the homes to a 90% home site plan, including setting the top of the foundation and the finished floor elevations. Once these elevations are known, we can much more accurately determine the amount of dirt that will be excavated for the basement. Using those volumes, FOCUS creates a development grading plan that shows the grading of any lots that can be graded out prior to the curb being installed, allowing the lots to be balanced within a few truckloads rather than 10 or 20 truckloads of dirt importing/exporting after the foundation is excavated.
The housing boom has presented another unique challenge for our site civil engineering team: keeping up with the number of projects to meet the housing demands. As FOCUS Project Manager Mat Wangsgaard points out, “FOCUS has a great team, and because of that, we have found ways to increase our efficiency so we can get work done faster and more accurately.”
A FOCUSed Response
The FOCUS team has created internal process improvements to ensure that our engineering calculations related to earthworks are as accurate as they can possibly be. Since actual soil conditions and soil shrinkage and swelling factors vary, we are not able to calculate pricing down to every granule of dirt; however, we do have a much better idea of dirt quantities that need to be moved, exported, and/or imported to each project site. Our new processes for earthworks management have proven to help provide FOCUS clients with more information, allowing them to make more informed choices on when—and where—to move dirt. “Clients can now see which of their projects need dirt and which projects have too much dirt,” describes Mat. “We have observed this to be particularly helpful to some of our clients who are able to move dirt on their own, rather than paying someone else to do it, and they can move dirt to and from their own project sites.”
Additionally, FOCUS has furthered our experience and familiarity with numerous city staff and municipalities. These relationships have helped streamline processes and ultimately benefit everyone involved. “Having built these solid, trustworthy relationships with key decision makers has reduced the number of reviews a city or municipality has on any given project. This has ultimately saved FOCUS clients not only money, but time as well—and in the current conditions—time is priceless,” states Mat.
A particular challenge for FOCUS clients has been the delicate balance of providing homes to meet demands while also being mindful of a general ‘non-development’ public mindset. FOCUS has witnessed clients doing more Master Development Agreements and Planned Unit Developments. These types of agreements allow both developers and cities to agree upon a layout and density that works for everyone involved. The result is better-planned neighborhoods with programmed amenities, allowing for both higher-density and lower-density areas.
Additionally, townhomes are becoming much more popular because they are more affordable compared to the standard detached single-family home. The current demand requires a higher density of homes in any given area to allow for everyone to have a chance at homeownership. This has made the purchase of larger portions of land and developing them under an agreement much more cost effective and ultimately provides a much better final product for the public.
FOCUS anticipates this trend from single-family to multi-family developments to continue. “Home builders have done a great job of creating amazing homes that can fit on smaller lots, which mean less yard upkeep and lower water bills and land taxes for future homeowners,” explains Mat. “It truly is a win-win to meet the housing demands, but with the homeowners at the forefront of everyone’s hard work.”
As FOCUS continues to meet the demands of engineering practical and effective site plans for our clients during the housing boom, we are mindful that as we look to the future, we must always be ready to adapt and evolve as the housing market and demands ebb and flow.