What's so bad about modular housing? Not much,
architects and builders say. You just need to know how to
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”