Mod To The Max

What's so bad about modular housing? Not much, architects and builders say. You just need to know how to work it.
Source: BUILDER Magazine
Publication date: 2005-09-01 | By Nigel F. Maynard

MENTION THE TERM “MODULAR housing” to the average person and one of two things will happen: If you're lucky, you'll get a quizzical look of ignorance; a more common reaction, however, may be one of condescension. In the eyes of the public, the reputation that precedes modular housing is not a good one.

“One of the biggest misconceptions the modular home building industry faces is from consumers,” says Chad Harvey, deputy director of the Modular Building Systems Association, in Harrisburg, Pa. “They believe that it's a trailer home. The image isn't as bad as before, but it's still a problem.”

In recent years, however, modular housing has become more hip as the topic has grown legs in the mainstream press. It has received extensive coverage in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. Hailed as the design and cost alternative to the overwrought pastiche that passes for mainstream housing, modular (often called prefab by the design cognoscenti) has experienced a rebirth, and architects and manufacturers say it's about time.

What exactly is a modular house? For one thing, it is not a trailer. Constructed on a nonremovable steel chassis, a trailer is considered a manufactured home. Though a modular home comes from a factory, it is built into modules using stick-framing techniques, says the Building Systems Network (BSN), a Gainesville, Ga., outfit that assists modular builders with lead generation, merchandising, and marketing. The home is then carried in sections to the site, where a builder assembles it on a traditional foundation.

“As far as what we offer, there is no distinguishing difference from a site-built product,” says Grant Smereczynsky, CEO of BSN and modular builder BSN Homes, also in Gainesville. “Every code and every system is the same as [with] a stick-built home.”

A site-built house and a modular home are at once similar but different. Both use the same codes and methods, but modular is built to a higher standard—at least in theory. “It is strong and rigid,” says Palo Alto, Calif., architect Stephen Atkinson. “It is built from the inside out, is amazingly airtight, and has a high R-value.”

Because modular homes are built under controlled conditions, components are never exposed to the elements, so lumber products remain completely dry, says Pieter Venema, president of Royal Homes, an Ontario, Canada, custom builder that uses modular components in 99 percent of its homes.

“The outside wall of a site-built house is 2x4, but in a modular house it is 2x6,” Harvey adds. “Our drywall is glued and screwed, the houses are structurally sound, and you don't get as many hairline cracks in the corners.” The floors in a modular home are consistent, the frames are truly square, and the paints and finishes are applied in a controlled environment and are therefore perfect, the industry claims. Moreover, because a modular house is shipped and craned into place, it must be able to withstand transportation and the installation process. “There are about 10 percent more materials in a modular home,” Harvey says.

Perhaps the biggest advantage modular has over traditional site building is the speed with which a house can be completed. “The cost savings, the mass production, and the repetitive nature of the process are the big benefits,” says Atkinson, who in 2003 designed a modular demonstration home in the atrium of the Mall of America for Budget Living magazine. The house was completed in seven days.

The module-based system coupled with the manufacturing efficiency often result in a house that is cheaper for the builder and the home buyer. “The key for the builder is job control, efficiency, and the ability to complete the [home buying] transaction quicker,” Smereczynsky says, adding that “the time line for a job might be about 30 days.” It can also cost less: Abuilder might pay about $40 to $50 per square foot, and the consumer's price might start at around $80 per square foot and rise with customization.

Building professionals agree that modular has inherent advantages over site building, but how they feel about its overall design depends on each individual's bias. In general, there appears to be a scarcity of good design in modular (though that also could be said of mainstream housing). Indeed, there are modular homes that even in diplomatic terms can only be described as dreadful. Low slung and badly detailed, they often seem top-heavy, lopsided, and carried through without thought.

Modular builder Francine Townsend has a theory: “I believe that in the early days of modular, the market was geared to entry-level or even low-budget customers,” says the vice president of Sandcastle Group in Marshfield, Mass. “Many of those customers came from a HUD-housing mentality and did not carry allowances for landscaping, shutters, or other finishes. There usually was little or no flexibility in design.”

Architect Douglas Cutler agrees that much of modular housing is unattractive and badly designed, but he says that's a reflection of the industry's business model rather than of the technology itself. “It's a manufacturer-driven industry,” says the principal of Douglas Cutler Architects and the Modular Home Design Center in Wilton, Conn. “I break quality into two areas: construction and design. Architects do not have much control in the process,” which accounts for the way the houses look.

According to Cutler, the factories do not sell to consumers; instead, they have given control to the builder, who then sells to the public. “The builder/developer is playing the role of architect and is not qualified,” Cutler explains. “They put together the designs, and the quality is poor. The design quality can be high, but it is not, and that is handicapping the industry.”

A group of young architects is leading the charge to change the perception of modular housing. Convinced of the design potential, Michelle Kaufmann, Charlie Lazor, Toby Long, Rocio Romero, Rob Luntz and Joe Tanney, and Jennifer Siegal are kicking down stereotypes with their ultra-hip, modern take on the traditional prefab house.

The homes—which are now available to the mass market—go by names such as Glidehouse, LV Home, and NowHouse, and feature cool materials, open floor plans, and interiors that blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor living. Attractive and well designed, the homes tend to be smaller, environmentally friendly, and modern in style. The question is, however, can this modernist take on prefab appeal to the mainstream home-buying public who prefers traditional-style houses?

“It seems dubious that modular housing will take off in the current modern wrapper,” says Atkinson. “People are more conservative in [their house] investments. It has to be in a style that is less threatening.”

Long agrees, somewhat. “The momentum for modular housing tends to be directed at the contemporary aesthetic,” says the principal of San Francisco–based Toby Long Design and designer of the NowHouse, a panelized quasi-modular home that is now being offered by his newly formed company Clever Homes. “But that signals market readiness.” Long continues, “In order for these concepts to truly succeed, there needs to be an expression of the traditional vernacular.”

Like Cutler and Atkinson, Long says the architect has a pivotal role to play in elevating modular design to loftier heights. You can already see that type of participation in modular timber-frame companies such as Lindal Cedar Homes and Acorn & Deck House Homes, which have partnered with architects to design some of their houses, he says. “If you look at those companies, you see the expression of value in design,” Long says. “Now, can the factories add value to reduce construction cost?”

The design quality of many mainstream-builder modular homes depends on who is doing it and what your style preference happens to be. Royal Homes, for example, has a history that is grounded in custom building, so the company's modular projects are highly tailored, says Venema. “We are a custom builder who happens to use modular components,” he says. “We rarely build two alike.”

Paul and Francine Townsend also have roots in site-built stick houses: In 1985, their company, Sandcastle Group, won Project of the Year in Builder's Builder's Choice design awards program, for Spinnaker Island and Yacht Club in Hull, Mass. Sandcastle now builds modular homes exclusively. “Today's factories have almost unlimited designs, but most companies do not have in-house design staff to work with customers,” says Francine, who adds that, unlike most modular builders, Sandcastle uses design software to help customers visualize their homes.

“Factories are beginning to involve more architects,” Cutler says, “and they are getting better with consumers.” Cutler is doing his part, as well. Though he designs custom modular homes for private clients, he also does product for a handful of manufacturers. Nevertheless, Cutler says more needs to be done.

“There needs to be a sophisticated merchandising strategy, a greater selection of designs, and architects need to have more control over designs,” he says. “There also needs to be a gradual transition from a custom product to a semi-custom product.” In other words, builders need to offer consumers a better selection of standard products in order to gain greater efficiencies.

So with all the benefits and potential, how do architects use the efficiencies to bring about good-looking affordable homes? How would a site builder incorporate modular components to realize cost savings?

Harvey says builders could easily integrate modular homes into their schedules and save costs from decreased construction time, but Francine Townsend says it's not that easy.

Her company had been doing a mix of site building and modular for some time, turning to all-prefab only about three years ago. “For us, the economies of scale would not work if we [did] both stick and modular,” Townsend says. “Our success comes from our ability to maximize efficiencies with permitting, subcontractors, etc. We would not be so successful with our time line if we were trying to build both conventional and modular.” She says that until you make modular housing your main focus, it's complicated and you don't see the savings.

Atkinson admits that working within the modular process was “arduous and antagonistic,” but he says there is definite potential. “I think more architects should use the modular system and design within its parameters,” he says. This is likely to have a positive effect, says Harvey. “I think the more people are exposed to what's possible, it helps the industry.”

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